Teresa Heinz Kerry suffered a grand mal seizure of unknown origin, "an electrical storm in the brain" that sent her to the hospital in critical condition Sunday, a medical source who treated her told NBC News.
The wife of Secretary of State John Kerry and heir to the ketchup company fortune was upgraded to fair condition Monday, the secretary's spokesman said, and she continues to undergo evaluation.
Heinz Kerry, 74, was flown to Boston for further medical treatment after being taken by ambulance from the couple's Nantucket, Mass., home to a hospital on Sunday afternoon, sources close to the family told NBC News.
She had to be intubated, the source said, which would be unusual, according to doctors who specialize in epilepsy and other seizure disorders.
A source close to the Kerry family, who spoke with NBC News Monday, said the family called for an ambulance "when they became concerned she was exhibiting symptoms of a seizure. She's been evaluated in Nantucket and Boston with no definitive diagnosis made at this point."
A grand mal seizure, also known as a generalized tonic clonic seizure, is the most serious type, one that involves the entire body and typically causes the victim to lose consciousness.
“It’s an electrical storm in the brain,” said Dr. Nathan Fountain, director of the F.E. Dreifuss Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. The effort of a seizure can be compared to running a 100-yard dash, and it leaves the patient exhausted and disoriented, he added.
The cause of such seizures is often unclear, especially if it’s an isolated episode. A seizure could be prompted by a stroke, by reactions to medication, by an underlying medical condition, even by something like serious sleep deprivation, said Fountain, who emphasized that he had no direct knowledge of Heinz Kerry’s condition or care.
“Most often, we don’t figure it out,” he said. “Almost anything that affects the brain can cause this.”
Typical seizures last about 3 minutes and may be treated with anti-seizure medications, which can suppress breathing, perhaps leading to the need for intubation, said Dr. Jacqueline French, president of the American Epilepsy Society and a professor of neurology at New York University Langone Medical Center. She noted, however, that there is evidence of an increase in new cases of epilepsy in people older than 65, when their brains may become more susceptible to the disorder.
“Unfortunately, the seizures are not recognized until the big grand mal seizure happens,” she said.
Heinz Kerry was admitted to the emergency room at Nantucket Cottage Hospital in critical but stable condition about 3:30 p.m., according to a hospital spokesperson. No further details were released.
Heinz Kerry, a breast cancer survivor, is the mother of three adult sons from her marriage to the late Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz who died in a plane crash in 1991.
She was treated at Massachusetts General in Boston in 2009 following her surgery to treat breast cancer. She also received treatment at a Washington-area hospital that same year.
Heinz Kerry’s seizure could be related to her previous treatment for breast cancer, said Dr. Orrin Devinsky, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at New York University Langone Medical Center. The cancer can spread to the lining of the brain or to the brain itself, causing a grand mal seizure.
“I wouldn’t say it is likely; I would say it is a possibility,” Devinsky said.
Sec. Kerry has been in Nantucket since returning from the Middle East on Wednesday.
Heinz Kerry is a longtime activist on environmental causes and leads the Heinz Family Foundation.
“The family is grateful for the outpouring of support it has received and aware of the interest in her condition, but they ask for privacy at this time,” Johnson said in the statement.