Epilepsy doesn’t stop her

Professor Peg Richards teaches a class. Richards was diagnosed with Epilepsy as a teenager,but has never let that get in the way of living her life. Photo by Emma Truhan-Swanson. 

On what seemed to be a normal day in 1975, 16-year-old Peg Richards took her daily morning shower and began getting ready for school.

Then, she woke up on the ground.  

She noticed her hair was wet. Totally disoriented, she could see her mom hovering over her, very upset, and hear her older brothers whispering comforting words into her ear.

“You try to make sense of your surroundings.  Where am I? Why am I on the floor? Why is my hair wet? That in and of itself is something really different, that you’re not aware of your present state until the present state has passed,” Richards explained, of the moment her journey began.

She had just blacked out. Unbeknownst to how or why, Richards just got up, fixed her hair, and went to school. The following months brought with them additional “blackouts” periodically.

Then comes the day of her SAT’s and, again, Richards is going through her morning routine before leaving the house. She wakes up and eats breakfast, showers, dresses for the day and heads downstairs.

No more than five minutes later, Richards is on the ground of her living room, groggy and confused. Her mouth and tongue are throbbing and bloody with cuts. Her head is pounding from the exertion her body just experienced and she is disoriented.

 “I got up and had so many questions for my brothers and mom.  What happened? Why? Where? I couldn’t remember anything about the seizure, so you need to ask those around you what happened in order to re-orient yourself,” Richards said.

 She says it takes about 20 minutes post-seizure to start feeling even somewhat alert again, and by then you feel utterly exhausted.  The general feeling of tiredness lasts throughout most of the ensuing day. Richards’ SAT’s were rescheduled for another day.      

 Richards’ “black-outs” are grand-mal, otherwise known as tonic-clonic, seizures caused by epilepsy. The most common of six types of generalized seizures, they feature violent muscle contractions and a loss of consciousness.               

In February of 1976, Richards saw a neurologist in Rutland for an EEG test, which measures brainwaves and brain activity. When the neurologist reviewed the test results, she went up to Richards’ parents and said, “your daughter has epilepsy.” 

She then turned to Richards and said, “do you have any questions?”

“Can I drive?” Richards said.

“Well, I knew two people who drove, and they’re dead,” the neurologist responded.

 Richards described the neurologist who delivered her life-altering news as a “particularly strange woman.”

 “That really scared me a lot. Maybe she thought I wasn’t taking it seriously enough, because I do have kind of a joking kind of manner.  To give her credit, I don’t think I really saw it as anything that was gonna really change my life in any major way, I guess. I don’t know who she is, but God rest her soul,” Richards said.

 After the neurologists’ appalling remark, Richards didn’t drive for an extended period of time. She finished her senior year and went off to college at North Adams State, now known as MCLA. Although she did have fears about having a seizure in class, that day never came – even throughout graduate school at the University of Oregon.

 “I usually would have a seizure either home on vacation, or home right before having to return back from a break, it was a specific timing that seemed to be tied to stress. I think it’s a blessing, it’s really kind of a miracle,” Richards said.

Richards had a drive to excel throughout her years in school, even after her diagnosis, and brought that quality along with her into her professional life. She says she doesn’t even think about how she is epileptic, unless a seizure occurs — or when she was preparing for job interviews.

She began her professional career in the realm of health care, though not in a conventional position one would assume when they envision hospital jobs. For different hospitals in the state of Massachusetts, Richards worked as a director of Personnel and Public Relations, a trainer, and director of Human Resources. In March of 1994 she became vice president of Human Resource Management at Quincy Medical Center. 

When interviewed for her positions, not once did she ever indicate to her potential employers that she had epilepsy or a disability, for fear that she would be discriminated against. Legally, she had the right to wait until after she was offered the position to disclose that information to her employers, so that’s exactly what she did. She says those were the few times in her life where her disease made her feel like she was disadvantaged.

Richards and her husband moved back to her hometown of Fair Haven, Vermont in 1998. That year, she started at Castleton as an adjunct professor for finance. Eighteen years later she is still here teaching, and is now chair of the business department. Colleagues say Richards is extremely driven, but just what is it that drives her?

“Love of family, love of humanity, I would say love of God, too, and a feeling that learning can be a real tool to better oneself in many ways,” said her business department colleague, Tom Rutkowski.

When it came time to select a new president for Castleton, Richards was chosen to be a part of the human resource effort.  She also was presented Castleton’s Outstanding Professor of the Year award in 2008.

Her most recent seizure was eight years ago, thanks to a change in medication. Richards describes her disease in simple terms: it’s part of who she is, but not a major part. 

Her husband Mick, whom she met when they were both 24-years-old, agrees.

“She has led her life the same way she would have if she didn’t have epilepsy.  Any pain or fear that comes with epilepsy is very, very rarely discussed by Peg, if at all. Her laissez-faire attitude about it surprised me the most.  She just doesn’t act like it’s a big deal,” he said.

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