He was a quiet high school senior who made good grades. At night, he’d sometimes work shifts at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. to help earn college money. The dark theater was an oasis, giving him respite from the odd “dizzy headaches” he kept getting.
The University of Northern Colorado accepted him, and he took to college life like a duck to water. He thought he might want to teach history someday. Then, during his sophomore year, he got one of the headaches while talking with his mother on the phone. “I hung up and lay down, and when I woke up, my roommates and a team of paramedics were standing over me,” he says. “I could see patches of blood. I had just had my first seizure.” The doctors placed him on an antiepileptic drug (AED) in the emergency room.
He soon followed up with a neurologist, who diagnosed him with a seizure disorder and changed his AED. Justin left UNC and returned home, all of his plans for the future suddenly up in the air.
He knew one thing: He wasn’t going to let his new diagnosis derail his life. He continued taking college classes and started tutoring part time at a middle school. He was sure that there was a next, big positive step he could take, if only he could fit the pieces together. Suddenly it came to him. “I could relate well to kids with special needs because of what I had gone through,” Justin says. “Even though their conditions are different, I could empathize. Having epilepsy could make me a more effective teacher.” So he decided to get a second degree in special education and offer a guiding hand to kids who were struggling.
Enter the Love Interest
Over the next few years, Justin worked hard to get his own education—and get his seizures under control. “The medication I was on caused me to gain weight and made it hard to concentrate,” he says. “So I was determined to find a treatment to control my seizures with as few side effects as possible.”
But as much as Justin thought he had things under control, there was one big missing piece in his future: romance. Would epilepsy ruin his chance at finding the perfect girl? Then one day, Justin received an e-mail from a young woman named Erin, who lived in New York. She was looking for a tech job in Colorado and found Justin’s profile on AOL. As it turned out, they shared the same taste in music. “Erin and I just hit it off,” Justin says. “I liked her right away. We’re both kind of shy, but we never had any trouble talking to each other.”
As their friendship grew, Justin told her about his epilepsy. Although Erin was concerned at first, she trusted him and learned to set her worries aside. Justin’s positive outlook on life was unflagging and helped her be optimistic as well. “He made me see a different view,” Erin says. “Instead of complaining, he used his experiences with epilepsy to help others.” The couple talked on the phone and e-mailed every day.
One evening, Justin was too tired to talk. He was in the process of switching medications, and had experienced three seizures that day. He was exhausted but still set on his goal: no seizures, no side effects. “I would do whatever it took,” Justin explains. “If this new medication didn’t work, I’d go on to something else. I had made up my mind.” Luckily, he hasn’t had a seizure since he adjusted his new medication.
Love Conquers All
After four months of long-distance romance, fate (in the form of a job interview) brought Erin to Colorado. “Waiting for her at the airport, I was really nervous,” Justin admits. “We never had any problem talking on the phone, but when we first saw each other there was a lot of awkward silence.”
To break the ice, Justin invited some of his friends to join them for dinner, and he even arranged for Erin to meet his family. “Seeing Justin with the people he loved made me feel more at ease,” she says. Later that year, she moved to Colorado.
Justin had no doubt that Erin was “the One.” Over the Christmas holidays in 2009, the couple traveled to the East Coast to visit her parents. An old-fashioned romantic to the core, Justin formally asked her parents for her hand. Not only did they say yes, but Erin’s mother gave Justin a family heirloom diamond for Erin’s engagement ring. “I was so nervous that I would lose it,” he says. “And then, when I got to the jeweler’s, I didn’t know which ring to choose.” So Justin hatched a plan. He would orchestrate a special date, propose, and then they would pick out a setting for the diamond together.
The night finally arrived. But the plan quickly took a comic turn. Erin came in from a long, tough day at work and rushed past him into the bedroom to change clothes for their date. He had to restart his romantic sound track three times before she came out to see what he wanted. He asked her to close her eyes, and she reluctantly complied. “When she opened them, I was on one knee, holding her grandmother’s ring in a small jewelry box,” Justin says with a laugh. “It wasn’t exactly the Hollywood scene I’d hoped for. But she said yes.”
Justin and Erin recently celebrated their first wedding anniversary—and Justin’s sixth year of controlled seizures. From time to time, Erin still worries. “Sometimes I ask him if he’s taken his medicine. I never want him to think I’m his mother! But I can’t help but be concerned because I love him.”
For his part, Justin keeps Erin informed about his doctor’s appointments and his epilepsy treatment. “She’s never seen me have a seizure,” he says. “I know she’d be great, but I think it might be a shock.”
The couple have settled into an easy routine. Justin is the unofficial grocery shopper and clean-up man; Erin is the cook. “Grilled cheese is about the extent of my skills. She’s a much better chef than I am,” Justin says with a laugh. “I always do the dishes; it’s cathartic at the end of the day.” In 2008 they bought a black Labrador puppy and named her Sophia. On weekends they ride their bikes or play with Sophia in a nearby park.
The pieces have fallen into place. The two bought a house, and in May, Justin will receive his master’s degree. He spends the summers at the Jason Fleishman Summer Camp for kids with epilepsy. “Justin’s taught me not to worry,” Erin explains. “We make plans for the future, but I have that philosophy in life in general. It would be great if Justin didn’t have epilepsy, but it’s shaped who he’s become. He doesn’t pity himself. He tries to help others because of what he’s gone through,” she adds, “and that’s a wonderful thing.”