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Doug Clark: Amy Biviano takes up fight against epilepsy

One October night during her 2014 campaign for Spokane County treasurer, Amy Biviano began to feel the telltale sensations of a seizure coming on.

The timing couldn’t have sucked more.

The Democratic challenger was five minutes from taking the stage and facing off with Rob Chase, the Republican incumbent, in a League of Women Voters candidate forum.

That was the schedule, anyway.

But as Biviano has grown to know only too well, epilepsy has a way of altering your best plans at a moment’s notice.

Diagnosed with the neurological disorder when she was barely out of high school, Biviano, now 40, has put up with a myriad of interruptions ranging from medical exams to having a “plum-sized piece” of her brain removed in 2003.

So on this night, Andrew, Biviano’s husband and best friend, let organizers know that his wife would not be participating. He explained the situation to Chase, who graciously agreed to reschedule their encounter for a better time.

“It was nice to be able to run against someone I could respect,” said Biviano, who lost the race but harbors none of the personal bitterness that makes politics such a drag.

Exiting the forum, Biviano said her next stop was an ER and maybe 100 small seizures before her ordeal was over.

Yet as frightening as it all sounds, Biviano brushes aside her problems with a grin.

“I try to be upbeat. I’m not in a wheelchair. I don’t have to wear a helmet. I can still work. I can pretty much live my life without a lot of limitations.”

Besides, she added with a laugh, “Everybody has something.”

I met with Biviano Friday morning at the Rocket Bakery in Millwood.

I had heard about her epilepsy, but it never became an issue in her 2012 campaign for the statehouse against uber right-winger Matt Shea (she lost) or her bid for county treasurer.

“That’s because you were busy covering me for other things,” she said with a laugh.

Biviano refers to the tip I got during the Shea race.

While attending prestigious Yale University, Biviano had appeared topless in a 1995 Playboy “Women of the Ivy League” spread.

The issue was good-naturedly defused thanks to Andrew, who told me, “I’m the luckiest guy. How many guys do you know who married an Ivy League-educated Playboy model who also happens to be the most wonderful person in the world?”

That still may be the smoothest quote ever uttered by a husband.

But getting back to epilepsy.

My curiosity was grabbed recently when I received an email showing me that Biviano has embarked on a new campaign.

This Thursday she will host her first fundraiser for the Epilepsy Foundation. The event, which is open to the public, will take place at the Spokane Valley Spokane Club, 5900 E. Fourth Ave. The evening will include food and a charity auction.

“The primary purpose is to raise funds for research,” she said. According to statistics there are 150,000 new cases of epilepsy in the U.S. each year.

It’s too bad that epilepsy is still poorly understood and lacks the public recognition of, say, breast cancer or heart disease.

Epilepsy, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, “is a chronic disorder, the hallmark of which is recurrent, unprovoked seizures. Many people with epilepsy have more than one type of seizure and may have other symptoms of neurological problems as well.”

Biviano is just the sort of sharp ambassador who could shed some light on this disorder.

A Yale grad in anthropology, she also holds an MBA from Gonzaga University, runs her own accounting enterprise that specializes in small business and nonprofit tax as well as business consulting.

She’s also a mother of two teenage boys, Aidan and Alex.

Because of her epilepsy, Biviano doesn’t drive. No problem. She rides her bike everywhere.

Which means that Biviano didn’t run for office so much as she actually pedaled for office, campaigning throughout the county on her bike.

“You don’t let it define you,” she tells young people with epilepsy. “There are plenty of ways to get around. You’ll be able to do everything you want to do.”

Biviano is living proof of that philosophy while at the same time well aware of the fright factor.

“I was scared out of my mind,” she said of the first grand mal seizure that occurred when she was 18.

“I was just a kid. I didn’t know what to think.”

Raised on a family farm in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, Biviano was working as a counselor and lifeguard at Girl Scout summer camp.

Around dawn one morning her life changed.

“I woke up the whole camp,” she said. “Loud noises. Lost control. I’m unusual in that I’m aware of what happens (during my seizures).”

The diagnosis was made later that summer. Biviano, whom Andrew calls a “Type A-plus” person, didn’t let the news stop her from entering Yale.

Or falling in love.

“We met on my second day at Yale,” she said of Andrew, who grew up in Spokane. “We actually said ‘I love you’ 10 days after we met.”

Andrew quickly became part of what Biviano calls her support team.

“When I met Andrew, my seizures were very much not in control.”

Once at an annual Yale/Harvard football game, for example.

She made it through Yale thanks to a “college that understood. They didn’t lower standards, they just made reasonable accommodations.”

Living with epilepsy, she believes, has made her kids more empathetic.

Biviano is lucky that her grand mal seizures are rare. She mainly has smaller “partial complex seizures” that aren’t triggered through lights, which is common. There are 54 types of epilepsy currently identified, she said, and just about every patient is unique in some way.

In Biviano’s case, she said her seizures can be set off by “high falsetto, mostly male voices.”

That definitely keeps the Beach Boys off her play list.

Biviano’s seizures are often accompanied by repetitive movements, like picking at her clothing and laughing for no reason.

Following her brain surgery, Biviano said she “was quite a bit better for a while.”

In 2011, she had a pacemaker installed to “send regular electronic signals to the brain through the vagus nerve.”

The device supposedly works half the time. “I was one of the unlucky 50 percent,” said Biviano, who decided to have it turned off in 2013.

“Oh, Doug, I’ve tried everything,” she said with a hint of exasperation.

Today Biviano manages epilepsy through medication, exercise and a sort of a modified Atkins diet.

Plus running – some 60 miles of it a week.

The running, she said, “helps in both regulating my brain chemistry and giving me the self-reliance to move forward on difficult days.”

On Nov. 1, Biviano plans to run in the famed New York Marathon with Athletes vs. Epilepsy. It will be her fifth marathon.

“I’m not a fast runner,” she added.

Just a good finisher, apparently.

Here’s the crazy thing. Amy Biviano looks the portrait of fitness and health in a small, trim package.

The other day, for example, she said she pedaled her bike all the way up Spokane’s monster Carnahan Hill.

That’s an Ivy Leaguer for you.

Not to brag but I, too, used to bike Carnahan back when I was a kid.

I went to Eastern, however, so I was smart enough to only ride the thing going down.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com