Allison McCartin (right), executive director, Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania, presents the Charley and Peggy Roach Founders Award to Madge Keehn in honor of her longtime commitment and dedication to the organization. (Photo by Jon Meter)

by Carole Verona

When she was about 18-months old, Andrea Keehn had her first seizure. The diagnosis: epilepsy. The pediatrician turned to Andrea’s mother Madge and said, “Promise me you’ll raise this child as a normal kid.” Madeleine “Madge” Keehn kept that promise until Andrea died in 2005 at the age of 46. Looking back at the pediatrician’s advice, Madge said, “I think it worked.”

Andrea lived an active, athletic, involved life. She graduated from Mount St. Joseph Academy and Montgomery County Community College. She volunteered at the Pastorius Park Concerts and at other events sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Community Association and the Chestnut Hill Cultural Alliance. She also worked at O’Donnell’s, the former Chestnut Hill stationery store (now a toy store), as a stock clerk for about 10 years.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation website, epilepsy is a medical condition that produces seizures affecting a variety of mental and physical functions. Seizures happen when clusters of nerve cells in the brain signal abnormally, which may briefly alter a person’s consciousness, movements or actions.

Early on, Madge Keehn of Erdenheim began going by herself to the educational conferences sponsored by the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania. Andrea didn’t want to participate in any of the foundation’s activities because she wanted to live a normal life and, in a way, didn’t want to admit that she had epilepsy. “She’d have a seizure, and boom, it would be over and done with,” Keehn said.

Attending the conferences was an eye-opening experience for Keehn. She learned about the latest treatments for epilepsy, kept abreast of employment and school issues and was able to share her concerns with others who were faced with the same challenges. She met all kinds of people with the disorder: married couples; people trying to pay the rent or get a job; people grappling with issues such as whether to tell an employer they have epilepsy before they’re offered a job or after. “At the conferences, I got support from knowing that there were a lot of people out there with problems far greater than mine,” she said.

Keehn’s initial involvement attending those conferences led to a lifetime of volunteerism with the Epilepsy Foundation of Eastern Pennsylvania and dedication to raising much-needed funds for the organization. She also enlisted the help of her husband Arnold, who died two months before Andrea; her sons and their wives, her grandchildren, other family members, neighbors and friends.

To honor and recognize her longtime commitment and dedication, the foundation presented Keehn with its Charley and Peggy Roach Founders Award at its 6th Annual Mardi Gras Gala, held on Friday, Feb. 8 of this year.

Julia Greenberger, development associate, noted that Keehn has been a volunteer for about 25 years. “After Andrea died, Madge established the Andrea Keehn Memorial Scholarship Fund to help kids attend Camp Achieve. Over 60 campers have benefited since its inception. Beyond that, Madge volunteers at every single event … at conferences, at the annual “Summer Stroll” fundraiser and at the camp. She also wrote numerous articles for the organization’s newsletter. We love Madge a ton,” she said.

Camp Achieve, located in Green Lane, PA, gives kids with epilepsy who are between the ages of 7 and 18 the unique opportunity to connect with others who are coping with the same day-to-day challenges. The kids are supported by a team of volunteer physicians, nurses, and counselors who specialize in epilepsy care. The camp provides a nurturing experience for kids who may, because of the disorder, face isolation, bullying and discrimination from classmates, neighbors and the general public.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, epilepsy affects 2.2 million Americans. In the U.S. it affects more than 300,000 children under the age of 15 — more than 90,000 of whom have seizures that cannot be adequately treated.

Keehn, who requested that her age be withheld, raises funds for the camp in any way she can. “I fund it; my kids fund it,” she said. In addition, she encourages people to make donations in memory of those who have died or instead of buying gifts for birthdays or other special occasions.

Her family also raises money by supporting the Summer Stroll. The team they formed, “Andrea’s Army,” will be out in force at the annual five-mile non-competitive walk along Forbidden Drive on Saturday, June 22. The event begins at 8 a.m. and ends with a picnic lunch and entertainment.

Keehn’s son Paul is on the foundation’s board of directors. His wife Abby and their sons Brian and Andrew are also volunteers. Her other son Walter has a band and performs for the kids at camp. His wife Gloria is a nurse and also a volunteer.

Keehn said that people have many misconceptions about epilepsy. She educates them regularly because “they don’t understand, whether out of ignorance or fear, what may be going on.” When Andrea would have a seizure, she would explain to people what they were seeing and what they needed to do. “Don’t be afraid, extend a hand, and be a friend,” is the message she wants to get across.

“At Andrea’s funeral, my sister said that I enabled Andrea to have a life. I didn’t look at it that way at the time,” she said. But now, looking back at the advice the pediatrician gave her many years ago, a light bulb goes off. “Oh!,” she exclaimed, because that’s exactly what she did.

For more information about epilepsy, the Summer Stroll, Camp Achieve or how you can volunteer or make a donation, visit www.efepa.org