Less than a month before his 17th birthday, Mills Ackerman was like any other teenager: going to high school, playing sports and hanging out with friends. But all that changed with the flicker of a light. "I was preparing to ask my girlfriend to prom. I took battery operated lights and wrote out 'Prom?' but that is the last thing I remember,” said Mills. It was at that moment that Mills began convulsing and had his first Grand Mal seizure. He was diagnosed with epilepsy.
This episode came as a shock to his mom, Cindi. "Nothing like this had ever happened before,” said Cindi. What was considered a fluke at the time, would later turn into a change of lifestyle for Mills.
Only a few days later while taking a math test, Mills experienced another Grand Mal seizure. The vision of a seizure can be terrifying, but when Mills tells the story he smiles and laughs. "I finished my test and got a B,” said Mills.
Mills was taken to the Bixler Trauma & Emergency Center, a moment Cindi recalls well. "They were trying to get him to stay still for an MRI but he wouldn't. I also knew that regardless of his age, the hospital can be a scary place,” Cindi recalled. As Mills began what seemed like a never ending list of medical tests, Tallahassee Memorial Certified Child Life Specialist Olivia Burton stepped in.
As the region’s only child life specialist, Olivia’s job is to help kids cope with being in the hospital. She specializes in ensuring there are proper distractions and all procedures are understood at an age appropriate level. When Mills was struggling with staying still for his MRI scan, Olivia was by his side to talk him through the procedure. “I was able to reassure him and help him hold still so the MRI could be successful,” said Olivia.
Olivia started as a source of comfort, but became a friend to Mills throughout his time at the Tallahassee Memorial Children’s Center. “Olivia was one of the few people that I felt like I could talk to,” said Mills. “She helped me with many procedures. She allowed me to squeeze her hand when I needed to and be a good friend when I needed one.”
The Ackermans treated Olivia as one of their own. “On the day of Mills' discharge, his grandfather was going to do a prayer circle and a family member found me at the nurses station and asked that I be a part of that prayer circle,” said Olivia. “It was that very moment for me that I realized the impact I had made on Mills' hospitalization and the impact he and his family had made on my life.”
Mills’ diagnosis came at a time when he was just starting to taste his freedom. “Any 17-year-old would be frustrated,” Cindi said. “But regardless of losing his license, being told he would be unable to play basketball and not knowing how this would effect his senior year of high school, Mills held his head up so high. His faith and determination outweighed any concern.”
For Mills, a diagnosis was not a stopping point — it was a pushing point. While he continued to have a total of 7 seizures, Mills was determined to achieve his senior year goals. “I was pretty bummed, but I continued to try and find the right mix of medications that worked for me,” Mills said. Remaining positive, Mills took every obstacle and overcame it. After several months of hard work, Mills now sits a little bit taller when he shares his impressive number of points per game in basketball. He also just received clearance to drive again and will be attending college in the fall.
When asked why Cindi chose Tallahassee Memorial to care for her son, she responded, “Because it is what I’ve always known. I knew when my son needed help, we needed to turn to TMH.” While a hospital stay is fleeting, the impact Olivia made on the Ackermans is lasting.
“I am not always able to follow patients after they leave the hospital but I am honored to be able to continue following Mills' journey,” said Olivia. “I’ve gotten to watch him not only grow as a person, but also as an advocate for epilepsy.”