South Carolina native, medical historian and author Deirdre Cooper Owens kicked off the Medical University of South Carolina’s annual Black history month lecture Feb. 6, touting Harriet Tubman’s widely unknown contributions to the U.S. medical system.
Tubman, a disabled veteran, abolitionist and nurse, is well known for leading about 70 enslaved people to freedom through the Underground Railroad and hundreds more enslaved people through the work she did as a nurse and spy during the Civil War.
But many don’t realize Tubman accomplished many of her most astonishing journeys while battling neurological disorders, epilepsy (a brain disorder categorized by unprovoked seizures) and narcolepsy (a brain disorder categorized by uncontrollable sleep-wake cycles), Owens said during her lecture.
Owens said Tubman had a way of caring for the whole person, citing her record of never losing a passenger and her ability to create lasting programs catered to the most vulnerable populations of her time.
- By Megan Fernandes email@example.com
Tubman also practiced herbal medicine, using herbs like Cranesbill and Lily Roots to treat the ailments of passengers and herself during her trips.
Cranesbill and lily roots are commonly used to treat malignant fever, smallpox and other infectious diseases.
As Owens tells it, Tubman once treated herself for an abscessed tooth, knocking the tooth loose with a harsh blow from the butt of her gun.
When Tubman wasn’t traveling south, she was connecting with local abolitionists in areas with large populations of formerly enslaved people.
Deirdre Cooper Owens is a medical historian, author and professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Owens is one of two Black women in the U.S. running a medical humanities program and serves as the director of the program in African American history at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest cultural institution. Owens is authoring a biography on Harriet Tubman that will focus on how Tubman accomplished her life’s work while living with epilepsy and chronic pain. Nikki Moore Photography, Lincoln, NE./Provided
Through these relationships she eventually established a network of people to help provide aid for marginalized individuals, including the elderly, orphaned, impoverished and disabled.
She went so far as to establish a home for the aged, acquiring 25 acres of land in her 70s, “crystallizing how important the provision of radical care for the most vulnerable, the elderly, was for her,” Owens wrote in a recent article published by Ms. Magazine.
“Tubman created sustainable communities where democracy was not only centered, but Black women, and the most dispossessed people, like Harriet Tubman, could execute power collectively,” Owens said during her lecture titled Healing, Mobility, & Fugitive Logic.
And while laws like The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 established formal precedent for eliminating discriminatory practices against those with disabilities, Owens argues that Tubman paved the way for this kind of work well in advance.
Tubman’s impact today
Trailing Tubman’s legacy of building inclusive institutions is S.C. Advocates for Seizure Safe Schools, a statewide parent-run organization dedicated to getting legislation passed to better support kids with epilepsy in public schools.
Over 7,000 kids and teenagers in South Carolina have epilepsy.
Severity of the disorder and the type of seizures an epileptic person can have varies on a case-by-case basis.
Epileptic seizures can be as simple as staring into space or periods of rapid blinking and as noticeable as flailing limbs and abrupt shaking.
But many teachers and school staff are not able to tell the difference, prompting numerous unnecessary 911 calls, potential harm to the student, and risks of falling behind in class.
- By Zharia Jeffries firstname.lastname@example.org
The organization was gearing up to present live testimony to the House Committee on Education and Public Works on Feb. 14 to urge state legislators to enact the Seizure Safe Schools Act.
The bill, which would require public schools to establish seizure action plans with standard guidelines for both implementation and quality, passed through the House of Representatives in 2022 but later expired in the Senate.
“We had to start all the way back over, so we’re hoping to get it through the House fairly quickly,” said Amanda Campbell, a Rock Hill native and one of the founding members of S.C. Advocates for Seizure Safe Schools.
Campbell’s daughter Raelyn was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2018 after having her first seizure in her 4-year-old kindergarten class.
“I took it upon myself to go in and teach her teachers seizure first aid,” Campbell said.
Raelyn ended up having another seizure a month or so later, Campbell said. And from the training that she gave them, “they knew exactly what to do.”
Amanda Campbell (far right), her daughter Raelyn Campbell (right), son, Ryker Campbell (left) and late husband David Campbell (far left) pose for a photo in Rock Hill, South Carolina Oct. 2022. Amanda is a founding member of S.C. Advocates for Seizure Safe Schools and her daughter Raelyn, was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 4. File/Provided
Campbell acknowledges that not every parent has the luxury of ensuring all of their children’s teachers know what to do in case their child has a seizure.
“And neither should we have to,” Campbell told The Post and Courier.
For many kids with epilepsy, school protocol is to call 911, even if the seizure wasn’t severe or harmful to the child. Campbell said the constant 911 calls can be costly to both the parent and the child, equating to climbing medical costs and loss of valuable class time.
She added that some students, like Raelyn, already have a difficult time in school due to the effects of the disorder, and missing class time for mild seizures is a result of outdated and inefficient school protocols.
In Owens’ lecture she described the pain Tubman endured while living with epilepsy in the 19th century. Owens said Tubman’s headaches/migraines were so severe she undergoes brain surgery as suggested from her physician, but opts out of anesthesia.
“She bites a bullet like other soldiers in the Civil War,” Owens said to an awe-stricken crowd. “This woman was in her 70s.”
Today, modern medicine can alleviate much of the symptoms Tubman described about the disorder as she aged.
Campbell said the best thing public schools in the state can do for their epileptic students is ensure all faculty and staff who work with students are trained on the most up to date seizure safety and rescue protocols.
- By Zharia Jeffries email@example.com
The proposed bill would require training for school personnel in seizure recognition and first-aid response every year. Upon receipt of a parent or guardian’s petition for a Seizure Action Plan, schools would be required to have the plan on file and available to all parties responsible for the student.
The bill would also require at least one other employee in each school to be trained to administer or assist with seizure medications and would include authorization of multiple rescue medications.
Ellen Nitz, director of nursing services for Charleston County School District, said children with a history of seizures do have an emergency action plan that gives teachers information about the different signs and symptoms they should be aware of to spot a seizure.
“We stay in very close contact with our families, trying to make sure we’re up to date on their last seizure activity and any triggers the child may have,” Nitz told The Post and Courier.
Nitz said while she isn’t sure how many kids in CCSD suffer from epilepsy, many students in the district require individualized health plans that involve instructions for what to do in the event of a seizure.
Nitz confirmed that 911 is not frequently called for students with a history of seizures, but emergency response teams are called if a student has never had a seizure or if a seizure becomes a life threatening event.
For more information about S.C. Advocates for Seizure Safe Schools, visit www.facebook.com/groups/1211340115734195.
To learn more about Owen’s work and her biographical work on Harriet Tubman, go to www.deirdrecooperowens.com/.
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