When memory fails

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
March 29th, 2022

Before I retired almost seven years ago, a friend who had already left the nine to five daily routine told me that one nice thing about retirement is that you have more time to schedule your doctors’ appointments. I was tempted to ask what doctors’ appointments but restrained myself because I didn’t want to appear too healthy to a friend who needed more doctors’ visits than I did. That was then, this is now.

Time passed and my list of doctors grew, a not uncommon occurrence when we move into our senior years. I won’t bore you with my litany of ailments except to describe a rare neurological condition that might be of interest to psychologists.

No, I didn’t mistake my wife for a hat or insist that my paralyzed right arm belonged to my brother who must have left it in my hospital bed the last time he visited. Those exotic conditions are the stuff of books. This is just a little story about a short time when my brain stopped recording what was going on and my world became one of gaps and surprises.

It started one late afternoon when my wife and I were raking the dead grass out of our lawn in one of New England’s annual rites of spring. She was working in the front yard and I was in the back. Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educator, is credited with saying that all work is noble, but somehow I don’t think she was referring to dethatching a lawn. Even if it was noble, it was deadly boring. Still, I was making good progress marked by small piles of dead grass all around the backyard. I must have lost myself in the monotony of the work, forgetting to check in with my wife or even to wonder if it was time for dinner.

“Alan,” she said, “time to call it quits. Let’s have dinner.”

“Yeah, sure, good idea. But what are all these piles of dead grass doing in the yard? Who did that?”

I was puzzled. I had no memory for the work I’d been doing for the last few hours and was surprised to see all these piles of grass though I did remember that we had been dethatching the lawn. So my wife sat me down on the deck and patiently explained what I had been doing all afternoon.

“Really? I did that?”

“Of course. Stop fooling around.” But it was clear from my clueless expression that I was completely serious.

Now we began an inventory of what else I might have forgotten and what I remembered. I knew who I was, who my wife was, where I was, the day and time, but there were clearly gaps in my understanding of the situation. Oriented to person, place, and time – oriented times three as we psychologists would say, but then again, not quite.

I believed her when she said I had done the raking but wondered why I couldn’t remember. With equal parts fear and curiosity, I continued the inventory, remembering our children, where they lived and the kind of work they did.

“And do you remember,” my wife asked, “that our son and his wife are going to have a baby?”

“Oh, isn’t that nice,” I replied. We had heard this good news a few weeks ago, but one of the nice things about what was happening to me is that I got a second chance to hear the good news for the first time. I also saw our new three-week old sofa for the first time though it was vaguely familiar. It had become a fixture in our home but not yet a strong enough fixture in my brain to withstand the obliterating effects of too many hours dethatching the lawn.

We both agreed that it was time for a trip to the emergency room. My wife drove and I spent the time checking my iPhone for the day and date and practicing spelling “world” backwards. The wish to get things right dies hard. The first few hours in the hospital were a blur, even now, a montage of faces and the sounds of voices that I’m told belonged to the doctors, nurses, and technicians beginning a series of tests that were to last for the next two days.

By the time I went to sleep in my hospital room that first night, it all started coming together, and I was able to hold on to everything that was happening as it was taking place. Best of all, I remembered my doctors telling me that I most likely had had an episode of a rare benign condition called Transient Global Amnesia or TGA, a diagnosis of exclusion later confirmed when further testing showed no underlying pathology.

The recording function of my brain somehow switched off, in my case for about five hours, and I stopped making new memories. The sudden onset, timely reassurance from the medical staff, and quick resolution of the problem left me little time for fear but more than enough to feel humbled by the complexity and fragility of memory and life, and gratitude that both would go on for a while longer.

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