What a Sudden Memory Loss Can Really Mean
A husband's story on the need to take alarming symptoms seriously
For most boomers, a memory lapse can be an annoyance. For my wife, Sue, it was a lifesaver.
One late December afternoon, Sue left our New York City apartment for an exercise class. She returned a little over an hour later, unable to remember how she arrived home.
Then things got really strange.
“Maybe you’re just stressed from the class,” I suggested lamely. As I went to the kitchen to get her a glass of water, she asked, “What day is it?”
Boy, she really was stressed. “Friday.” I returned with the water, which she downed like a traveler lost in the middle of the Gobi desert.
“That was good.” She looked up at me. “What day is it?”
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“Friday,” I repeated.
“It is?” she asked incredulously. “How long have I been home?”
Forgetting the Previous Hour
I was ready to cancel her gym membership and start an ad campaign: EXERCISE CAN BE HARMFUL TO YOUR MENTAL HEALTH. Meanwhile, Sue was still trying to piece together the previous hour of her life.
“Now, where was I coming from?”
“The gym. You took a Reggaecise class.”
Either Sue’s protein bars were laced with ganja or there was something very wrong with her mental facilities. In between glasses of water — which I only later realized she had immediately forgotten to have consumed each time — she would ask what was rapidly becoming the question of the day. “So… how did I get here?”
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Clearly, this was beyond the scope of a good nap. I asked Sue a series of personal questions to test her memory. She had no trouble listing her siblings, her job, office phone number or place of birth. In fact, she seemed to remember everything that ever happened in her life… up until the previous hour or so.
“So, let me get this straight,” she said, not for the first time. “I was working here, then I forgot where I was?”
“No. You went to your class, then came home — and you were like this.”
She was stunned. “I went to my class?”
A Trip To the ER
Pulling my “husband calls the shots” card (an exciting, once-a-year event), I decided to get Sue to the emergency room whether she liked it or not. She insisted we walk the 14 blocks to New York Hospital.
As we crossed the street, Sue whispered, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” I replied.
“Did you bring the insurance card?”
There was a seven-second pause before Sue again asked: “Did you bring the insurance card?”
“Yes, you asked that already.”
“Don’t be sorry.”
Another seven-second pause. “Did you bring the insurance card?”
You can figure out the rest of our 15-minute conversation. It was like an M.C. Escher drawing come to life.
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Several weary patients were ahead of us at the ER. After giving a quick rundown of Sue’s condition to the admitting doctor, we were bumped to the front of the line. (Neurological problems get you special treatment.) As the admitting doctor buzzed a colleague for consultation, Sue was put on a stretcher and electrodes were attached to her body.
A moment later, the second doctor arrived. Appropriately, she was a near dead-ringer for ER star Dr. Alex Kingston, right down to the curly hair and British accent. “Did someone call for the stroke team?” she asked brightly.
Oh. My. God.
A Black Hole In Her Brain
The admitting doctor gave her a rundown of Sue’s symptoms, while I filled in whatever gaps were left. “All right then,” she told Sue, “I’m going to perform a memory test. I want you to remember the color red, the number four and the day of the week. Do you know what day it is?”
Sue was a total blank. “It’s Friday,” the doctor prompted. As the quiz continued, Sue could name the president, various states of the union, relatives, her birthplace and her first dog. But anything she'd learned in the previous 10 seconds — like the color red and the number four — vanished into some black hole in her brain.
To our surprise, the doctor said, “You’re going to be all right.”
Sue, we were informed, had fallen victim to transient global amnesia (TGA), a temporary condition that prevents the brain from creating new memories. “We don’t know why it happens,” the doctor added. “What we do know is that it tends to happen after the age of 40 and can be triggered by stress or a strong workout.”
Well, Sue was over 40 by more than a decade. She was engaged in a strong workout when this whole thing started. And nothing says stress like Christmastime in New York. My wife was the poster girl for transient global amnesia.
The symptoms, we learned, last anywhere from eight to 24 hours. Sue was the fifth TGA patient the doctor had seen that week, something I found reassuring and alarming.
The night was a blur of tests, memory quizzes, an MRI, and the occasional visit from "Kingston" and her associates. Not to mention Sue’s lengthy sojourn to the bathroom — eight large glasses of water will do that. By 11:00 p.m., there were already glimmers of recovery.
Then came the bad news.
A Blessing In Disguise
Sue’s MRI had revealed a brain aneurysm, waiting patiently for the right moment to burst and kill her.
Astonishingly, the aneurysm had nothing to do with the TGA. As scary as this episode was, it was the only way anybody would have known that something far worse was going on.
Some time later, Sue underwent brain surgery. She’s been fine ever since. According to statistics, there’s little or no chance transient global amnesia will strike her again. Even better, people who have had a TGA episode are unlikely to suffer a stroke, either.
By the way, one event now known to bring about TGA is a particularly robust round of sex. So the next time your loved one suddenly forgets your name after that special moment, take it as a compliment — but get him or her to the ER pronto.