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U. BREAKTHROUGH HELPS LIFE RETURN TO NORMAL FOR TEEN WHO HAS SEIZURES

Jessica Yager's life is finally returning to normal after she was hit in the head by a baseball in 1991.

Six months after the accident, Yager had her first seizure - the first indication of Rasmussen's encephalitis, a rare epileptic condition that would worsen to rack her young body with up to 100 seizures a month.Six months of treatment developed from research by University of Utah scientists has cut down the number of seizures, improved her attention span and regulated her overall health.

Yager said this week from the University of Utah Genetics Institute she has more time to do the things she enjoys: 4-H, track, basketball, singing and writing. "I've been really busy," she said. "I've got lots to do."

The 13-year-old Riverton, Wyo., girl still has about 35 seizures a month and will have to continue the immune globulin injections she receives each week indefinitely, but she said her progress is worth the two-hour IV treatment process.

She was in town to show off an award-winning science project that details her illness, the new research and her progress back to wellness.

Dr. Kevin Staley first diagnosed Yager at the University of Colorado Children's Hospital in Denver in April 1991. "I watched her condition deteriorate," he said this week. "She's improved dramatically since we began these treatments."

She's awake more, for one thing, he said. The brain reacts to a seizure by excreting a Valium-like substance, so with a handful of seizures each day, Yager spent much of her time sleeping or "spacy," Staley said.

Rasmussen's encephalitis attacks the brain, and doctors until recently have treated the advanced cases by performing a hem-is-pher-ec-tomy, where the affected side of the brain is surgically removed. After this procedure, children are usually paralyzed and sometimes lose speech and other motor skills.

"That's the real tragedy - it's one thing to consider this type of a thing in people who aren't functioning, but with Rasmussen's, it's kids," Staley said. "The tragedy is to have to wait for them to progress to the point where we've had to do (the hemispherectomy) in someone that is still moving. It's disastrous for these children and their families."

Yager's mother, Julie, said the new treatments, which initially lasted eight hours, aren't pleasant for her daughter but are an indescribable alternative to the hemispherectomy.

"She can be a normal teenager," she said.

Yager's teachers at Riverton Middle School say her illness has been educational for other students, but they're glad to have the student back to herself.

Home-room teacher Shelley Forton said she tries to balance two competing goals in her involvement with Yager. "The family really wants to educate people about this disease, and students really are more aware. But at the same time, Jess doesn't want to be different. She wants so much to be like other kids."

"She's an incredibly bright student," said math teacher Tobi Litton. "She goes great guns in everything she does."