San Diego 'September 12 of 1993, when I collapsed at the bowling alley, the Vista Entertainment Center, that was the starting point," Jeff Olsen says.
What started on that day was a new life for Olsen, who was 29 years old when he crashed onto the boards after completing a game.
He'd been a regular at the Vista lanes since his family moved there from Oceanside in 1973. Jeff was easy to notice. For most of his life, he looked and acted profoundly retarded. His gait was unsteady; he employed a Rain Man-esque refrain of "you knows" to express a thought. Although he had grown to be 6´3´´ tall and weighed some 250 pounds, he was exhausted after walking a block. He slept 12 or 14 hours a night. Awake, he had a glassy stare, and he was withdrawn.
At 14 months, his doctors at the Camp Pendleton Navy hospital, where Jeff had been born, diagnosed Jeff as epileptic and brain-damaged. Over the years, they prescribed a battery of powerful drugs to keep the resultant seizures in check.
By the time he was 29, Jeff had never held a job, though he had learned arithmetic and reading and writing in special- education classes. The state of California ranked him as having a "most severe" disability. When he was 21, his doctors declared his disability was permanent.
It appears they were wrong.
After his fall in the bowling alley, Jeff's parents took him back to the Navy hospital at Camp Pendleton. Jeff's father Bob is a Marine Corps veteran who lost a leg in Korea and first settled in Oceanside on his return from the war.
The Navy doctor who examined Jeff after his tumble in 1993 hadn't seen Jeff before, but he suspected the young man was suffering from an overdose of the combination of tranquilizers and anti-convulsive medications he'd been taking in ever-increasing amounts since infancy. In addition to his physical weakness, Jeff's skin color was turning gray, his father recalls.
The doctor immediately reduced his dosages -- complete withdrawal would be too physically taxing -- and Jeff started to literally awaken. His parents say it was like watching someone come out of a coma. He started talking -- to the point where his family grew tired of hearing him -- in well-organized, complete sentences. Today, just a hint of a didactic drone gives Jeff's voice a slightly different sound. He began going on walks -- five, eight, then ten miles -- with his mother tagging along to make sure he stayed out of harm's way.
But Jeff's medical records still carried the diagnosis of epilepsy and brain damage, dating back to the Camp Pendleton doctor who saw him in 1964 when Jeff was an infant. Jeff was born on the base in 1963, the fourth of four children, all boys. Aside from a brief but severe viral infection and fever at five months, Jeff was a happy and healthy baby, just like his three brothers.
But around the time of his first birthday, he started experiencing mild seizures. His parents took him to the Camp Pendleton doctors. And that's when Jeff began his 30-year descent into a pharmacologically induced fog of mental confusion and physical suffering.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) administered when he was 14 months old showed an abnormal spike of electricity in Jeff's brain. (Magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] devices and CT-scans were still years away.) Acting on conventional 1964 medical wisdom, the Navy doctors told the Olsens their baby's brain was literally scarred, that his seizures would escalate, leaving Olsen mentally retarded and unfit to care for himself.
Jeff's parents were told to get on with their lives as best they could.
Also, in accord with standard treatments then, the baby was put on Phenobarbital, a potentially addictive tranquilizer, to control the seizures. By the time he was four, Jeff was showing signs of hyperactivity, a not-uncommon reaction for children. Following the protocol for treatment of hyperactivity (still largely applicable today), Jeff was given a stimulant, Dexedrine. In a short while, it was replaced by Stelazine. The records aren't clear why the switch was made. That drug would never be used today; it is too powerful to administer to a child.
San Diego neuropsychologist Barbara Schrock said that the drug was much more popular in the '50s and '60s. "It's one of these heavy-duty psychotropic drugs that were the miracle drugs in the '50s that they gave to severely mentally ill patients to make them more manageable." Now, however, giving Stelazine to someone with Jeff's condition would be "like using an elephant gun to shoot a mosquito," she said.
As Jeff grew, so did the dosage. He developed a host of intractable side effects, including chronic, itching skin rashes all over his body, hallucinations, and temporary deafness. Soon after he went on Dilantin, his eyesight grew so bad he had to wear glasses. When problems arose, new drugs were substituted. But throughout those 30-plus years, none of Jeff's doctors or psychologists or special-ed teachers ever thought to re-evaluate the initial diagnosis clipped to his chart.
In 1997, 4 years after the Navy doctor's suspicions led him to cut down Jeff's medications, Jeff found a doctor who could explain what had happened to him 30 years ago and what had gone wrong.
San Diego neurologist Dr. Thomas Schweller, who trained at the Mayo Clinic in the '60s and now has a private practice in San Diego, specializes in seizure disorders. He spotted Jeff's problem after a review of the 1964 report on the EEG. "The pattern is something called 'spiking' in the central temporal part of the brain, the sylvian fissure, the pathway that divides the lobes of the brain," he explains. Jeff was suffering from "benign sylvian seizures of Lambroso, where you have seizures that are often nocturnal, often associated with an onset of a partial-speech arrest because it's near the speech center."
Though extremely rare, the syndrome is easily controlled with relatively mild medications. In most patients, it resolves itself by the time they reach adulthood. Their brains are left unharmed and they need no further treatment.