I had another seizure Sunday night.
It was similar to the one I had in May, and Jenna and I agreed that I should get on the next flight back to the US to see doctors in Seattle to manage my care long-term. I did so and landed at SeaTac Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately, my 90 day visa to French Polynesia has expired, and I have no legal no way to get back to Bora Bora until I am issued an emergency visa. Jenna was able to get a 3 week extension for her and the kids due to my medical emergency, but I am in diplomatic limbo as we try to get the attention of the visa department of the French Consulate in San Francisco. We spent Thursday and Friday working with the visa department of the French Consulate in Los Angeles, and they were vey cool, but ultimately determined the consulate in San Francisco has jurisdiction for US citizens in Seattle, so I need to work directly with them now.
Here an excerpt from the letter Jenna wrote to the French government explaining the situation:
Urgent visa for medical emergency
My name is Jenna Miller and we are US citizens from Mercer Island, Washington. I am currently in Bora Bora with our two young children who are 5 and 8 aboard our sailboat, “Sophie.” My husband, James Utzschneider, who was here in Bora Bora with us, experienced a medical emergency this week and we are now in urgent need of a new visa for him so he can rejoin us and we can continue our family voyage together.
We departed the USA from San Diego in March and crossed the pacific on our sailboat to French Polynesia where we have been cruising for the last 3 months as part of the “Pacific Puddle Jump” boats travelling across the south pacific this season. We had planned to leave French Polynesia from Bora Bora this week to continue to sail to the Cook Islands, but in the middle of Sunday night James had a seizure, which required him to fly to the USA so he could be treated by epilepsy specialists. About a month ago he had the first seizure of his life while we were travelling in French Polynesia and was hospitalized in Papeete, Tahiti for several days under the care of Dr. Larre, a neurologist there. After many tests, they concluded he was unlikely to have another seizure, so we continued our trip. We consulted with Dr. Larre again by phone Monday morning after James’ second seizure and agreed that it would be best for James to see additional specialists in the USA immediately.
Therefore, on Monday morning we consulted with immigration agents in Papeete who told us it would be fine for James to return to the US and then come back to Bora Bora, given this was a medical emergency, but that it would be necessary for myself and the children to apply for special extensions to our visas in order to remain in French Polynesia while he was away visiting doctors this week. We did this and were granted a 3 week extension to await James’ return. We arranged doctor appointments and put James on the first available flight to the USA. He is now in Seattle completing his medical appointments. However, today I received a phone call informing me that the approval for James were told we had on Monday, for him to return here, was wrong and that he would not be allowed to come back after all because his visa had now expired since he left French Polynesia. We have spent all day making new requests to customs and immigration officials in Papeete for an exception to be made, since this was due to a medical emergency and we were originally told that this would be ok. We are confused that we were granted an extension for myself and the two children due to my husband’s medical emergency, but he, the patient, is being denied re-entry. We only need a visa for 2 days so he can fly to Papeete, then to Bora Bora and we can check out with the gendarmes here and depart for the Cook Islands, but customs officials in Papeete said they have no authority to grant him a new visa since he returned to the USA. They referred us to you, the French Consulate in Los Angeles, for help.
We have no intention of remaining in French Polynesia and only want to be reunited so we can safely continue our offshore voyage. As the mother of two small children I am concerned about the prospects of undertaking a multi-day offshore open ocean crossing without my husband here. I’m sure you agree these circumstances are extraordinary and we realize we are at the mercy of your assistance to help reunite our family. If there is anything you can do to expedite our request and resolve this problem we most appreciate it.
Thank you in advance for your help,
Jenna Miller and James Utszschneider
Eloquent and riveting as usual. All I want is permission to enter French Polynesia so I may be reunited with my family and leave on my sailboat for the Cook Islands.
We’ve thought about the idea of having Jenna take the boat directly to the Cook Islands and I could meet her there, but when I first looked at the weather forecast for Aitutake this week it looked like she’d be facing winds up to 30 knots in 4 meter seas with an 8 second period. The forecast has subsequently gotten a little better, but based on these conditions the kids will be holding bowls on their laps for 3 days during the 500 mile passage.
Meanwhile, in Seattle I went to see Dr. Alan Wilensky at the University of Washington Regional Epilepsy Center. By having a second seizure Sunday night, by most definitions of the word, it means I have epilepsy, even if I never have another seizure. But as I learn more about it, I realize its not that big of a deal. Remember, I used to have cancer.
Dr. Wilensky is a nice 70 year old semiretired doctor who has been treating epilepsy for 40 years. We spent 90 minutes talking in his office at Harborview Medical Center, and then he reviewed my test results from the French Hospital in Tahiti and gave me a physical exam.
For starters, he doesn’t think my first seizure was caused by a tumor, stroke, alcohol, tattoo, fish poisoning, sleep deprivation or Hazel. He said based on my blood work there is a remote chance it was triggered by my body fighting off something, but we will never know for sure. Seizures are apparently common in children and in people over 50 (I’m 51), so it is not completely unusual that I would have one. Apparently 8% of the population has at least one seizure before they die. He thinks that there is a good chance that my second seizure was caused by a rapid withdrawal from the benzodiazepine
that the physicians prescribed for me for the month after my first seizure. US physicians do not typically use this drug to treat epilepsy for a variety of reasons. However, Epilepsy apparently is a condition that can be contained by drugs on an ongoing basis to prevent seizures so patients can maintain a high quality of life. He’s going to put me on something called Keppra
, which apparently works for most patients without negative side effects. We have a good friend who has been on this medicine for two years without incident.
In terms of our cruise, he wants me to avoid baths, swimming by myself and SCUBA diving. Based on my two seizures, he thinks I am most at risk during the 10 minutes when I when I wake up from a deep REM sleep, and he discussed this with Jenna when she was on the phone with us for fifteen minutes (dialing in from the Bora Bora Yacht Club
). He also put me back on the benzo for 3 weeks as I ramp up my dosage of Keppra. He is a strong believer in gradual drug transitions.
Our situation could be worse right now. I mean, Jenna is “stuck” in Bora Bora with our good friends the Reibelings, and it has only rained for half of my days in Seattle since Tuesday. I also get to reconnect with friends here. And based on a recommendation from a friend of mine in the State Department, I plan to be at the San Francisco French Consulate when they open on Monday.
And … if anyone has suggestions or connections that can help me expedite my reunion with my family, please send them my way. I miss them terribly and want to ensure “The Ballad of Jamie and Jenna” has a happy ending.