Laser ablation surgery gives new dad with epilepsy a hold on life

Dr. Naoum "Norm" Issa, MD, PhD, performs an exercise during a checkup to examine Kyle Pavlick's cerebellar function, the part of his brain that controls muscular activity.

Dr. Naoum "Norm" Issa, MD, PhD, performs an exercise during a checkup to examine Kyle Pavlick's cerebellar function, the part of his brain that controls muscular activity.

For Kyle Pavlick, 37, holding his son was once a terrifying prospect. That’s because Kyle suffered spontaneous seizures caused by epilepsy. He was afraid he might drop the infant if one came on suddenly.

In addition to frequent smaller seizures, he would experience larger ones known as grand mals. Violent muscle convulsions during his grand mal seizures led to dislocated shoulders and unexpected falls. He would end up with bloodshot eyes, blood vessels popped in his chest and bruises on his face.

“The anxiety from those ruined my life,” he said. “I would be out of it for a few days after — so sore and tired.”

Growing up, Kyle loved outdoors activities. Hunting and fishing with his father, motocross biking and camping were a few of his favorite things. In high school, he was encouraged to play football and ended up with two state championship titles and a full scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Martin.

But doctors believe a bout of meningitis earlier in life, along with several concussions, may have triggered his epilepsy when he was 29, eventually putting a hold on the activities he loved. After witnessing a seizure in 2016, Kyle’s girlfriend and now-wife, Nicole, became his primary caretaker, barely leaving his side. Kyle tried multiple medications to help control the seizures, but none seemed to work.

“It was awful,” Nicole said. “I would barely sleep. He would sing a song or make a noise similar to the sounds he’d make during his grand mal seizures, and I would go into fight-or-flight mode immediately.”

After roughly seven years of dealing with the grand mal seizures, Kyle and Nicole decided to have a baby. James was born in June 2021. The baby's arrival, along with a terrifying 40-minute seizure that landed Kyle in the hospital four months later — drove Kyle to seek an alternative treatment for his epilepsy.

Naoum (Norm) Issa, MD, PhD, Associate Professor of Neurology and Director of Epilepsy Research at UChicago Medicine, met with Kyle and laid out several treatment options. Ultimately, Issa recommended laser ablation surgery for Kyle’s complex case.

The minimally invasive procedure involves using data from different brain maps to identify the starting point, or focus, of a person’s seizures. Using this data, the neurosurgeon implants electrodes directly into the brain. These help the care team determine exactly where to perform surgery.

When it’s time to operate, the surgeon makes a tiny incision — smaller than the diameter of a pen — into the skull. They use targeted laser technology to destroy the cells responsible for causing the seizures.

Since his surgery, performed in February 2022 by UChicago Medicine Director of Stereotactic and Functional Neurosurgery Peter Warnke, MD, Kyle has had no more grand mal seizures.

“I’m thrilled to see Kyle doing so well,” said Issa. “It’s so important to offer a procedure like this where we don’t crack the skull.”

UChicago Medicine has logged the largest number of minimally invasive procedures for complex epilepsy cases in the tri-state area of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. The health system’s epilepsy team also offers many treatment options beyond laser ablation surgery.

Now, Kyle — an expert bowhunter — is back to leading hunting outings in western Illinois, about a half hour outside of Quincy.

He’s been able to go fishing, enjoy some alone time, and — most importantly — hold his son. Kyle remains on several maintenance medications to prevent relapses, but Issa is hopeful he might one day be able to stop taking them altogether.

“Dr. Issa and the whole team changed my life,” Kyle said. “The surgery has allowed us to become a family.”

Naoum P. Issa, MD, PhD

Naoum P. Issa, MD, PhD

Naoum Issa, MD, PhD, is a neurologist specializing in the treatment of epilepsy. He works closely with patients to control their seizures and is passionate about offering advanced options for epilepsy that is resistant to anti-seizure medications.

Read Dr. Issa's physician bio
Peter Warnke, MD

Peter Warnke, MD

Internationally renowned neurosurgeon Peter Warnke, MD, has performed more than 5,000 stereotactic surgeries and more than 2,000 brain tumor surgeries. Dr. Warnke provides neurosurgical care for the treatment of adults and children with movement disorders, epilepsy and brain tumors.

Learn more about Dr. Warnke