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Patsy Custis, Larry McClarey and Sudep

MarthaParke_Custis

The Father of our country, George Washington, was never blessed with biological children.  When he married his wife Martha, she was a widow, and she brought two children into their marriage:  John Parke Custis, who was four, and Martha Parke Custis, who was two, and who was called Patsy.  Washington raised the two children as his own.

At the age of eleven or twelve Patsy began to have epileptic seizures.  The Washingtons consulted numerous doctors and attempted endless cures, all to no avail.  Modern medicine was not yet even in its infancy, and anti-seizure medications were over a century in the future.  However, even then it was known that epilepsy was not usually a mortal disorder.  Patsy had frequent seizures but she came out of them each time with no discernible harm.

On June 19, 1773 Patsy was  at Mount Vernon talking to her brother’s fiancée, Eleanor Calvert.  Patsy went to her room to retrieve a letter from her brother who was away at college.    Eleanor suddenly heard a strange noise and found Patsy on the floor having a seizure.  Her parents were summoned and George Washington placed her on her bed.  Family letters describe Washington kneeling at Patsy’s bedside, tears streaming down his face, praying for her recovery.    After only two minutes, Patsy died.  She was buried the next day, George writing to his brother-in-law, that his “sweet, innocent girl had died”:    [Patsy] rose from dinner about four o’clock in better health and spirits than she had appeared to have been in for some time; soon after which she was seized with one of her usual fits and expired in it in less than two minutes without uttering a word, a groan, or scarce a sigh. This sudden and unexpected blow … has almost reduced my poor wife to the lowest ebb of misery.

This is one of the earliest accounts of Sudep (Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy).  The mechanism by which Sudep causes death is still mysterious.  It strikes young people, those between 20 and 40 are at highest risk, who are otherwise in good health except for their seizures.  It often occurs at night, and is usually unwitnessed.  The victims are often found in a prone position on their beds, or near their beds.  It is rare, striking one out of 1,000-3,000 of epilepsy sufferers each year.  In order for a death to be considered to be Sudep there can be no other explanation for the death.  The mortality figures on Sudep are uncertain because death certificates often do not indicate Sudep as the cause of death.  It is estimated that some 45,000 Americans die from Sudep each year, which puts it ahead of vehicular accidents by 13,000 for the year 2011 as a cause of death.  Go here to learn more about Sudep. Continue Reading