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Minnesota Epilepsy Foundation: Keep coach Kill

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The following is an open letter from Brett Boyum, president of the Board of Directors for the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, to Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan, who in a Sunday column said it was time for University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill to step aside.

Souhan had noted that Kill, who has epilepsy, suffered his fourth game-day seizure on Saturday. The incident has sparked conversation about whether Kill can be an effective coach, or whether he should resign. U of M Athletic Director Norwood Teague on Monday morning said, “Jerry is our coach. We are 100 percent behind him." Kill is expected at practice Monday.

Here's Boyum's letter:

Mr. Souhan, I get your gig. You are a columnist. A columnist’s role (how you help gain readership and sell papers) is to create controversy, openly discuss issues that people are afraid to talk about, and in some cases take a position that no one else wants to take.

As a columnist you have liberty that a reporter does not in the sense that you can write from an opinion perspective rather than a fact perspective. It’s strictly entertainment, not news.

Unfortunately, in your Sunday column regarding Coach Kill you moved from an opinion writer who entertains to a writer who cast a stone (relatively speaking, in this case, a boulder) that lacked knowledge, information, sensitivity, and dare I say humanity: in short, ignorance.

It is difficult for me to write this letter without emotion. You see, I have Epilepsy and my son has Epilepsy. To read a statement that says “No one who buys a ticket to TCF Bank Stadium should be rewarded with the sight of a middle-aged man writhing on the ground” harkens to antiquated judgments made 100 years ago. The truth is Mr. Souhan, no one who has been graced with a ticket to life should have to lie on the ground writhing. But, the reality is 60,000 of us here in the state of MN endure seizures. None of us stop pushing toward our personal goals and knocking down the barriers that stand in our way, including opinions like yours.

Thus, I am choosing to write this letter as a professional with Epilepsy - instead of that emotional husband, dad, brother, son, and friend who has Epilepsy - because I have a much larger mission in life. I am proud to serve the 60,000 children, teens, and adults who have Epilepsy as the President of the board of directors for the Minnesota Epilepsy Foundation. WE will someday find a way to prevent or cure seizures. Until then, WE will do everything in our power to ensure all people with seizures realize their full potential, whether that be a student, a doctor, a cook, a teacher, a mechanic, a Big 10 football coach, or a CEO. I believe this because I am fortunate to have support (like Coach Kill) and the same relentless drive to overcome that epitomize many of us with Epilepsy. In addition to my volunteer role on the board, I currently serve as a Vice President of Marketing for a local company – yes, I’m in a leadership role and I have Epilepsy!

I also choose not to debate whether you have the medical credentials to determine if Coach Kill is healthy enough to coach; or, if stress is the reason for his seizures; or, if the job is further damaging his health. You don’t and it’s unfortunate that you choose to make these unfounded judgments and falsely influence many others’ perspectives of Epilepsy.

I would, however, like to address the more insulting comments you make in your column that single-handedly set back years of efforts by many in the community and medical field to debunk myths and remove the public stigma surrounding Epilepsy.

First, the football program and the University did not become a subject of pity or ridicule. In fact, I’d say the coverage nationally by ESPN, Big 10 Network, and others were very professional and of genuine concern for Coach Kill. Your perception of pity and ridicule is either a case of sensationalism to drive an ulterior motive or you have such preconceived notions of how the public might respond that it distracted you from the reality of the moment. This is important to note because those two attributes are exactly what those of us with Epilepsy do not want; especially pity. We fight ridicule regularly but that is petty to pity. Pity means you don’t think we can make a difference. Those of us with Epilepsy, including Coach Kill, can and are making a difference. A big difference.

Next, you argue that Coach Kill cannot continue coaching because his public seizures damage his leadership reputation, the program’s reputation, his ability to coach, and the willingness of fans to support the team. Let me paint a brief picture of the faces of Epilepsy. It’s an infant whose parents are terrified every time their child seizes, it’s a student who has a seizure in school in front of their teachers, coaches, and friends; it’s a CEO of a company who has a seizure while traveling, visiting with employees, or presenting to their investors; it’s a mom who endures multiple seizures in front of her children; It’s me in front of the board of directors, peers, our customers; you get the picture. What is the definition of public? The student having a seizure in front of his friends is more public to him than Coach Kill having a seizure on the football field in front of 40,000 fans. Are we to tell that student he shouldn’t be in school and he will never realize his goals because he will be bring ridicule and pity to himself, his family and his school? Should I let my dreams of being a successful business person, role model, community leader, and father extinguish and seclude myself in a dark room so as not to bring pity and ridicule to my family, co-workers, and community? I can tell you that the 60,000 of us in MN and all our family, doctors, and social networks will not let jaded and ignorant opinions like yours stand in our way of success; however each of us may define success to our individual situations.

We cannot control whether our seizures are in public or private environments. To stereotype those of us with Epilepsy as incapable of leadership, inspiration, or even productivity because the public nature of a seizure could create pity and ridicule is narrow minded. Statements like you write in your column are the very reason the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota develops programs like Seizure Smart schools, businesses, and communities. These programs educate the public on how to respond and support someone that may have a seizure in a public environment. It also provides confidence to those of us with seizures to achieve. More importantly, these programs demonstrate that seizures are an obstacle, but on the other side of that obstacle is a bright, intelligent, passionate individual with no boundaries to achieving success and inspiring/leading others, despite what you may judge as our capabilities.

There is much more to say. The unfortunate dilemma I now face is do I continue to point out the inappropriate and inaccurate statements in your column to defend a person with Epilepsy and their ability to chase dreams, be successful, and lead or do I move on? I’m moving on. I’m moving on to stand tall and tell the world that I am part of an incredible organization and a group of people affected by Epilepsy who are out to realize our full potential. I’m moving on to create positive opportunities for those with Epilepsy rather than defend our potential against the ill-willed opinions of a few.

Mr. Souhan, if you really want to learn the truth about Epilepsy and understand the meaning of living each day to its fullest I give you an open invitation to visit our organization and those that we serve. Instead of a column that worries about pity and ridicule, maybe you can then write a column on inspiration, leadership, determination, service, and humanity – and how those of us with Epilepsy use our situation to foster and demonstrate all these great characteristics.

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