Mark is one of the UK’s only firefighters living with epilepsy. We recently caught up with him for a wide-ranging conversation covering his love for the great outdoors, coming to terms with the diagnosis as a teenager, and breaking down barriers for others.
How did you find out you had epilepsy and what was your immediate reaction to the news?
I was diagnosed with epilepsy at 17 years old, after suffering my first seizure whilst getting ready in the early hours of the morning for my first “lads” holiday. At the time I knew nothing about the condition, but after many tests and appointments with doctors and neurologists, I was painted a very dark picture. The neurologist spoke about me never drinking, never going to nightclubs, and never be in the forces; it was all doom and gloom. As someone who was just finishing with school, meeting girls and doing all the things teenage lads do, I thought my life was over.
We understand you were one of the first people with epilepsy to achieve the position you hold as a firefighter. Can you tell us more about this?
Like many people, becoming a firefighter had always been a dream of mine, but with my epilepsy diagnosis, I felt it was never really going to be an option. However, I inquired at my station last year as they were recruiting. I told the watch manager about my epilepsy straight away and they said that I could proceed with the recruitment process and see how I got on. After many tests including written exams, fitness, strength, practical, a full medical, confined spaces and height tests, followed by a four-week intensive training course, I passed everything!
As far as we are aware, I’m the first person in Derbyshire, and probably the UK, to become a firefighter with epilepsy. Many people said it couldn’t be done and that it wasn’t possible, but I have proved them wrong and hopefully opened the door for others.
The neurologist spoke about me never drinking, never going to nightclubs, and never be in the forces; it was all doom and gloom.
Has epilepsy had an impact on your love for the outdoors and adventure?
My love for the outdoors has come from having epilepsy. Being in the mountains, the hills, the countryside and woodland was a massive part of what got me through the first few years of being diagnosed. I always came back from the outdoors feeling re-energised and more positive about my life and my future. The Great Outdoors is now my favourite thing and it pushes me to take on new adventures as often as I can.
What would you say to anyone newly diagnosed, or their family, as a result of your experience of the condition?
My advice to anyone who has epilepsy or has been recently diagnosed is don’t let people or society put you in a box labelled ‘epileptic’. You choose your boundaries and limitations; nobody else has the right to say you can’t do something because you have epilepsy! Break down those barriers for others to follow.
My love for the outdoors has come from having epilepsy. Being in the mountains, the hills, the countryside and woodland was a massive part of what got me through the first few years of being diagnosed.
What are your hopes for the future regarding epilepsy research or general understanding of the condition?
My personal wish regarding research is to find out how altitude effects people with epilepsy. As a mountaineer, I’d like to tackle some higher peaks and base camps over 3000 metres. I have spoken to many doctors and medics working in the outdoor world, but all say the same: no research has ever been done into epilepsy and altitude. Other conditions like diabetes and heart problems have been investigated at different altitudes, but it’s never been done with a group of people with epilepsy and there’s no reason why it can’t be.
The biggest thing I wish people understood is that not all people with epilepsy are photosensitive. It seems to be the biggest and most common mistake people make.
– Mark, August 2020