Skip to main content
Partner logo
Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Mobile Icon Link Gamecocks+
General  . 

Epilepsy isn’t Slowing Down Swimmer Tommy Mitchell

by Brad Muller

Epilepsy isn’t slowing down Tommy Mitchell. South Carolina’s sophomore freestyle swimmer not only manages his neurological disease well enough to compete at a Southeastern Conference school, but he’s also active in trying to improve the technology people with epilepsy use to monitor their condition. Mitchell was diagnosed with epilepsy near the end of his senior year in high school in New Jersey.

“That changed a lot of things for me,” said Mitchell, who is studying integrated information technology and hopes to manage technology systems in healthcare. “One of the things my doctors recommended was to get an epilepsy watch. The connection was spotty at times, and it kept giving me a lot of false alarms. They’re very sensitive. I want to help make those sensors more accurate, so I’ve been giving feedback to the watch manufacturers and the people that design the app that detects the seizures. I’m in a research study now that tracks how medications and these devices are working.

“The goal right now is to be an advocate for the disorder because there are not too many people that I’m aware of at the Division One level that have this disorder.”

Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that causes repeated seizures. Mitchell’s sister also has epilepsy, but he was not aware of his condition until he woke up one night in pain.

“I woke up in the middle of the night, and my shoulder was dislocated,” Mitchell said. “I was in a ton of pain. Since my sister has epilepsy, my mom and I did some research and discovered that my shoulder may have been dislocated from a seizure. We went to see a neurologist, got an EEG (electroencephalogram, which measures brain activity), and within that 30-minute time period, they detected two absence seizures, which means my brain just sort of zones out, and I don’t process anything. They don’t last very long, maybe 20 seconds. I don’t even realize it when it’s happening.”

“I’m able to be where I am despite epilepsy, and that makes me feel even better about myself. I tell myself that I have this, and I’m still able to accomplish all of these things, competing in this program in the SEC.”
Tommy Mitchell  . 

Through some trial and error with medications, Mitchell was able to manage his condition. Being a competitive swimmer is exhausting with the number of hours spent in the pool as well as training outside of the pool, and the medication for epilepsy also makes patients very tired.

“The first time we tried the medication, we tried an extend-release, and I was so tired that I walked into a wall and broke my toe!” Mitchell said. “We got that fixed though.

“Being a swimmer, we work out a lot. It’s hard because one of the side effects of the medication is that it makes you tired. I have to make sure I’m getting enough sleep every night. Sleep is super important with epilepsy. My teammates, coaches, and everyone else are always there to support me though.”

The special app that he can use on his smart watch detects abnormalities and seizures which can then send a message to others that something is happening so they can check to make sure he is OK. Despite his condition, Mithcell is able to compete for the Gamecocks and trains just like everyone else.

“The coaching staff here has been super-supportive,” Mithcell said. “The health care team here, the doctors at Prisma Health (Hospital), and the sports medicine folks here have all been great. Things are going well right now with the medications, and I keep my roommates up to date with what’s happening.

“The watch can’t check for absence seizures. What it can check for is jerking movements and elevated heartrate, and elevated levels of sweat. Alarms will go off on their phones if I’m having a seizure, and they’ll know they need to come and help me.”

While the smart watch app has worked well, there are times when it can give off false positives, especially if it’s on when it’s not being worn such as being jostled around in a piece of luggage.

“The main goal for me in providing feedback to the companies that make it is for there to be a lot less false positives with the watch,” Mithcell said. “I only have seizures at night, which is the scary part. I wear the watch at night because of what’s called SUDEP, which stands for Sudden Unexpected Death from Epilepsy. If I weren’t wearing the watch and I had a seizure and died in the middle of sleep, nobody would know.”

For now, Mitchell is competing just like everyone else, and his message to others who may be afflicted is to not let it hold you back.

“Stay strong,” Mitchell said. “You’re not alone in this. You have people that will support you. You can push through it like I did.

“I’m able to be where I am despite epilepsy, and that makes me feel even better about myself. I tell myself that I have this, and I’m still able to accomplish all of these things, competing in this program in the SEC.”