Local resident overcomes prejudice

Woodbridge native Jamie Botwick, age 22, knows what it's like to face discrimination and prejudice. But she's both fighting back and speaking out for greater tolerance. In her own brave way she is stretching the definition of diversity to include those with medical conditions, like the epilepsy she has lived with for the past 11 years. She asks others to "see us as we are — see us as people, and treat us fairly."

Jamie began life as a normal, healthy child with no family history of epilepsy. But after suffering symptoms of what seemed to be a routine viral infection when she was eleven, one day her parents found her in her bed in the grips of a grand mall seizure that doctors were unable to control.

After diagnosing the brain disorder epilepsy, her doctors gave her powerful medication to stop the seizure and Jamie spent the next several months in the intensive care unit in an induced coma. When she awoke she had to re-learn how to walk and talk — and begin her life again as one of the two million Americans who live with epilepsy.

Jamie's attacks can occur as frequently as 15 to 18 times a month and be severe or mild, lasting a few minutes or much longer. She gets what is known as an aura, or warning sensation, just before a seizure begins, usually giving her enough time to lie down. She has been on many different medications, none of which have eliminated her seizures.

As a student at Amity High School, Jamie says her classmates and the staff "were extremely receptive and positive" towards her and took her condition in stride. They soon learned what to do for a person having a seizure and Jamie's condition became a learning experience for everyone.

She felt comfortable in school and did "all the normal teenage things" from activities like horseback riding and water-skiing, to participating in extra-curricular activities and having boyfriends. She graduated with honors from Amity and was accepted at all the colleges she applied to. She was offered scholarship money from the University of Hartford and chose to attend, after being sure to inform them of her medical disability.

But soon after beginning her freshman year, Jamie unexpectedly began experiencing discrimination and harsh teasing from classmates and in the dorm. When she went to her advisor she was told that the problem was hers. Her seizures, which had been dealt with gracefully by her teachers and classmates at Amity, were now causing her to be ridiculed and harassed, and even school staff rebuffed her coldly.

Jamie decided to stand up for her rights as a disabled person and together with her parents, Ed and Bonnie Botwick, has recently filed a lawsuit against the University of Hartford claiming a pattern of insensitivity, harassment and discrimination.

After withdrawing from the University of Hartford mid-year last year, Jamie has found a more receptive climate at Beacon College in Florida and is continuing her studies. She also is keeping busy speaking professionally about her experience with epilepsy and the prejudice she sees as her biggest obstacle.

She talks passionately about changing the public perception of epilepsy and wants to educate as many people as she can. She's particularly vocal about what she views as "the negative portrayal we have on TV. They always make a big deal out of seizures, with all kinds of flailing around. But I wish they wouldn't only depict such severe seizures. That makes epilepsy look so much worse than it is most of the time."

Jamie has been profiled in Seventeen magazine under the headline "I have epilepsy but it doesn't have me" and has also been featured in articles in the NY Times and Newsweek magazine. She has also been interviewed on CNN, and was selected to receive a Home Town Hero award from U. S. Sen. Joseph Leiberman "for her strength and courage in not only facing adversity, but overcoming it."

Bonnie Botwick expresses great pride in her daughter's accomplishments.

"She helps fight discrimination of any sort when she speaks. She encourages many people because instead of giving up she succeeds. People ask her to speak because she brings such encouragement."