ORANGE, Calif.—Twenty years ago, Israel Zuniga, 39, was asleep in bed when he experienced an event that would change his life forever: his first seizure.
“I was sleeping one night and when I woke up, I was on my bedroom floor surrounded by paramedics,” Zuniga said. “My brother was sleeping next to me. He was the one who realized something was wrong. … We didn’t know what was happening.”
Zuniga was taken to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with epilepsy, a medical condition caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain that often results in seizures.
Over the next two decades, Zuniga experienced one to three seizures per day, he said. They arrived unexpectedly, often with little warning while he was at work, and he was under constant medical care.
“I was a prisoner to the disease. I depended on so many people. I always had the fear of when the next seizure would happen,” Zuniga said.
Then he heard about the Lestonnac Free Clinic, a facility in the city of Orange that provides medical care to uninsured and low-income county residents. Soon after, he was introduced to an epilepsy specialist at the clinic, and that was the start of a major change in his life.
The Long Battle
Over 1 million people in the United States have uncontrolled or drug-resistant epilepsy, according to the Epilepsy Foundation.
After Zuniga was first diagnosed with the medical problem, he was sent home. But his condition worsened.
“They gave me pills, but I kept having seizures,” he said. The doctors increased the dosage of drugs to minimize their severity, but Zuniga would still get small ones that would last a few seconds. “They would paralyze me—make me drool and unable to speak.”
Zuniga got a job working at Carl’s Jr., a fast-food restaurant, but lived in a constant state of fear. He was worried that one of his frequent seizures would occur while he was serving customers.
“I can imagine a customer watching a seizure must be very uncomfortable,” Zuniga said. “Sometimes I could feel them coming, and if I was at work with customers, I would leave. … They were so strange: I was immobile and wanted to speak, but couldn’t.”
Though he learned to work around the challenges, the constant pressure never allowed him to operate comfortably and burden-free, he said. He would feel chills and other sensations, like the need to use the bathroom, right before the seizures would hit. They happened so often, even fellow workers recognized the signs.
“My co-workers learned how to tell that the seizures would be coming. They would see the signs and tell me to go to the break room and relax,” he said.
The condition required frequent visits to the doctor. During one such visit to his general physician at St. Joseph Hospital, he was told about the Lestonnac Free Clinic.
Dr. David Millett is director of the epilepsy program at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. A board-certified neurologist specializing in seizures and epilepsy, he also established a successful program within the Los Angeles Department of Health Services that provides care to thousands of underserved patients.
Millett connected with the Lestonnac Free Clinic, which provides medical services to uninsured and low-income residents.
“The fact is that minority populations generally have a number of risk factors for epilepsy which we don’t really see in patients that were born and raised here,” Millett told The Epoch Times.
“Oftentimes they’re born under impoverished circumstances. Their perinatal care wasn’t particularly good. So you can have perinatal infections, strokes, and complicated labors and delivery, which sets them up for brain damage at birth.”
Millett said for many patients, as with Zuniga, the seizures affect the entirety of their lives.
“We often see patients that have been in a school for a few years when their seizures began, and it was just too cumbersome for them to continue,” Millett said. “They don’t really have access to high-level care to fix it.”
Clinic staff and Millett were able to access resources earmarked for the community and get Zuniga approved for free brain surgery. Zuniga said the procedure could not have come at a better time.
“It was hard to think about it, but my wife pushed me and I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ Then a couple of months after agreeing to the surgery, we found out she was pregnant,” said Zuniga.
Zuniga successfully underwent a five-hour surgery in November 2019, a few months after he met Millett through the Lestonnac Free Clinic.
“It would have been a hard life” if his epilepsy didn’t improve, he said, “because I may not have been able to hold my baby and enjoy her the way I do now. … I can care for her without any fear of harming her.”
Millett said he noticed changes in his patient almost immediately.
“He’s much more at ease and he smiles much more easily,” said Millett. “He seems more relaxed, and he doesn’t seem to be worried about when is his next seizure is going to happen, or when is he going to have to call in from work or somebody is going to have to send him home or his wife’s going to have to call the paramedics.”
Zuniga said he noticed changes and improvements to his life right away.
“Life after surgery is really different now. I don’t tremble anymore. I haven’t had any seizures,” Zuniga said. “My wife can go to work without worrying about me. I can take care of my daughter alone. I can feed her and bathe her.”
When Zuniga discussed the procedure, he became emotional and wiped away tears.
“Finding Lestonnac was a huge blessing—not just for me, but for my wife and my family who were always worried about me,” he said. “Dr. Millett was 100 percent dedicated to me and provided me with an expensive surgery for free that totally changed my life. It’s such a blessing.”
“I had surrendered to the idea that this is who I am, this is a part of me, and I have to live with it. I believed that something bad had come into my life to stay—but I was wrong,” Zuniga said.
“There are always doors that God opens up for us to take away these bad things. Sometimes our faith makes us believe that God will send an angel to touch you and heal you. But sometimes we forget that God has put people here, like people at Lestonnac or Dr. Millett, who act like angels or heroes, who come and say, ‘We are taking this bad thing away.’ Then God opens up doors and blesses us.”
The Lestonnac Free Clinic continues to operate at no cost to Orange County taxpayers. Uninsured county residents in need of help can visit the clinic’s website at Lestonnacfreeclinic.org.