Saturday, November 03, 2007

Violonist continues to play despite Epilepsy

For more than three decades, the rhythm in violinist Martha Curtis' life was cut with staccatos of auras and terrors.Every week, the seizures came, always preceded by the panic that sank deep into her gut.

"Like something was coming to kill me," said the Eastman School of Music graduate, who returns Saturday to Rochester to speak at the Epilepsy Foundation's annual community education conference.

A Michigan native now living in Pittsburgh, Curtis was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 3, began playing the piano at 5 and the violin at 10. She pushed her way into Michigan's Interlochen Arts Academy boarding high school, then the Eastman School of Music, despite warnings that neither campus was equipped to handle her seizures.

For many years, she hid her epilepsy from friends — walking out of classrooms to swallow the "icky feelings" from partial seizures, playing through recitals with paralyzed fingers, begging whoever was around not to take her to the hospital, even when grand mal seizures blacked her out for minutes at a time.

After she had a seizure on stage during her senior year at Eastman, Curtis put down the violin, convinced that her secret was out and she could never play professionally. Two years later, she brushed off discouragement and got part-time work with four orchestras. When seizures returned, she didn't hide them.

"I just decided that epilepsy is in the world, and the world should have to cope with epilepsy," she said. "I should walk exactly where I want to be. If I seize, people can deal with that."

In the early 1990s, Curtis underwent three surgeries to remove parts of her right brain. She was terrified the operations would affect her music, but without the operations, she was sure she could never play the way she wanted to.

Now 50, Curtis has two children, hosts of honors from Eastman and elsewhere, no seizures and no secrets. She has spent the last year home-schooling her 7-year-old but plans to return to the stage soon, without any interruptions in her rhythm.

"I can actually hear myself play now," she said."I try to talk to people about living a life they want to live. ... I want people to know they can do anything despite something as stupid as epilepsy."


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