Senator Ted Kennedy: Seizure, Brain Cancer, & Death

Medical Author: Benjamin C Wedro, MD, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

When one of our political leaders becomes ill, it makes headline news. Senator Ted Kennedy suffered a seizure on Saturday, May 17, 2008 which led to a quick visit to Cape Cod Hospital and a medical helicopter flight to Massachusetts General Hospital, home base for Harvard Medical School. On May 20, 2008 doctors announced that a tumor had been identified as the cause of the seizure. Tissue samples taken at biopsy revealed that Senator Kennedy has a malignant glioma of the parietal lobe of his brain. Senator Kennedy passed away from the malignant glioma tumor on August 25, 2009 at his home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts at the age of 77.

Seizures occur when the brain becomes irritable and abnormal electrical firings cause alterations in normal brain function. Usually, the patient becomes temporarily unresponsive and the exact location of the electrical short circuits will determine what abnormal physical findings are witnessed. If they involve the part of the brain that deals with movement, there may be rhythmic shaking or jerking. The seizure may involve just a mild absence or staring spell. It may be preceded by an aura in which the patient knows that a seizure is about to occur. There may be a post-ictal or recovery phase, in which the patient slowly returns to normal function as the brain resets itself. There are many different variants of seizures, and eventually a neurologist will get involved with the diagnosis and treatment.

The initial evaluation of the patient begins with the history of what happened, examination of any potential associated risk factors for a seizure, and a physical examination. Presuming that this is normal, screening blood tests are done including a complete blood count and electrolytes, glucose, and kidney function tests. A CT scan of the head will look for bleeding or masses, and an EKG and heart monitor may reveal heart rhythm disturbances. If infection is suspected, a lumbar puncture may be considered.