Streep coming to Bloomingdale for epilepsy fundraiser

When Meryl Streep comes to Bloomingdale on Friday, it won’t be for a movie shoot or film promotion.

Instead, it will be for something even closer to her heart.

The star of films like “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The Iron Lady” will come to Hilton Indian Lakes Resort to speak at a charity gala for The Charlie Foundation to Cure Pediatric Epilepsy.

The foundation advocates for education about the ketogenic diet, which supporters say can be used to treat epilepsy in children. The high-fat, adequate-protein and low-carbohydrate diet mimics aspects of fasting by forcing the body to burn fats and ketone bodies rather than carbohydrates. The ketones then pass into the brain and replace glucose as an energy source, and these elevated ketone levels reduce the frequency of epileptic seizures.

Comedian and Chicago native Jeff Garlin, writer and actor in shows such as “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” will emcee the event. Attendees will hear Streep speak when she accepts a commemorative book from the foundation, and those with VIP tickets will meet her at a cocktail party

Streep has been advocating for The Charlie Foundation and the ketogenic diet since meeting Jim Abrahams, director of comedy films “Airplane” and “Ruthless People,” almost 20 years ago. The pair became friends while filming the 1997 TV movie “First, Do No Harm” and Streep also met Abrahams’ then-toddler son, Charlie, who suffered from epilepsy.

Abrahams said Charlie tried every available drug of the day, and even a brain surgery failed to control the boy’s seizures.

“Doctors all agreed drugs and surgery were the only treatments, so we went along with them but nothing worked,” Abrahams said. “As a way to figure out how families get through this, I started doing some reading, went to the UCLA medical library and came across the diet.

“For decades it was one of the first and very successful treatments they had used for children with tough epilepsy, but it had nearly fallen extinct because drugs had come along and it was so much easier to prescribe a pill than to change what a kid eats,” he said.

Ultimately Abrahams and his wife, Nancy, put Charlie on the extremely strict diet, and Abrahams said the boy showed improvement within just 24 hours.

“He went from as many as 100 seizures a day to nothing and, within a month he was off all the drugs,” Abrahams said.

The family kept Charlie on the diet for five years, but he never took another drug for his illness. Today, Abrahams said, Charlie eats anything he wants and is a sophomore in college.

Because of the dramatic change, Abrahams said his family, Streep and others “got on a soapbox” and started the Charlie Foundation to raise awareness about the diet.

“Meryl helped start the foundation (because) she was around when Charlie was sick, so she knew the reality of the horrors as well as this miraculous improvement,” Abrahams said.

Today the Hollywood duo works to provide information about the ketogenic diet and access to families of children with epilepsy, so they can make an informed decision with their doctors.

“When I look back at what happened, the biggest problem is that nobody ever told us this diet existed,” Abrahams said. “They used to say it’s not healthy, but new studies show that’s not valid. They say it’s a dramatic lifestyle change, but having a kid who is drugged and falling on the floor all day is a pretty big lifestyle change too.”

Friday’s gala fundraiser is part of a three-day medical conference starting Wednesday at Indian Lakes that will attract roughly 400 clinicians, scientists and dietitians from 33 countries who will discuss the diet. The event is in the Chicago region because organizers said it was an ideal central location.

Abrahams said Garlin was asked to host the gala to bring some much-needed comedy to supporters who will be immersed in a serious topic for three days. Friday’s gala will be followed by a family day for supporters of the diet, also in Bloomingdale.

“I think he’s going to balance the evening, since this is a pretty heavy topic and humor is going to be key,” Abrahams said.

With the trio’s star power, he hopes more families will become aware of the option for addressing pediatric epilepsy and insurance companies might take note, too.

“What it boils down to today is hospitals have trouble reimbursing dietitians who are knowledgeable in the diet, but will reimburse other options that are more expensive,” Abrahams said. “It isn’t as popular as it should be, but I think it’s catching on.

“Yes, it’s very strict and regimented, but next to having a kid with epilepsy, it’s a walk on the beach. And after a couple years on the diet, they go off and on with their life.”

Jeff Garlin
Film director Jim Abrahams and his wife, Nancy, at right, started The Charlie Foundation to Cure Pediatric Epilepsy nearly 20 years ago when their son Charlie, in foreground, suffered from the illness. Their children Jamie and Joseph also are pictured. The foundation will sponsor a fundraiser Friday in Bloomingdale featuring actress Meryl Streep and comedian Jeff Garlin. Courtesy of The Charlie Foundation

If you go

What: Benefit gala featuring Meryl Streep and Jeff Garlin

Who: The Charlie Foundation to Help Cure Pediatric Epilepsy When: 6 to 9 p.m. Friday Where: Chicago Hilton Indian Lakes Resort, 250 W. Schick Road, Bloomingdale Tickets: $200 per person; $1,000 per person including ticket to VIP cocktail party with Streep.


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