The day I lost my memory is a day I will never remember.
I went through my typical day-in-the-life-of-a-retiree: oatmeal for breakfast, morning at my computer, and dinner of chicken curry with my husband Khalid. A food particle must have tickled my throat and I started to cough. The cough got violent, and Khalid rose and walked over. He may have patted me on the back. The coughing stopped.
“I am disoriented,” I said.
I Don’t Remember
Later, Khalid told me what happened:
“Where did these flowers come from?” I was looking at the flowers in the vase.
“Aneela brought them on Mothers’ Day,” Khalid said, referring to his sister-in-law.
“Where did these flowers come from?” I asked again.
Khalid is a doctor, so he knew that something had gone terribly wrong. He ran a quick test.
“Who am I?” he asked.
“You are Khalid.”
He picked up the framed photo of my parents. “Whose picture is this?”
“It’s Mummy and Daddy.”
“Where are we?” he asked.
“In our apartment.”
My long-term memory was intact.
What day of the week is it?” he asked.
“What day of the week is it?” I repeated.
“It’s Tuesday,” he answered.
“What day of the week is it?” I asked again.
My ability to establish new memories—gone.
Khalid saw his future in a flash. If this was a stroke, he will have to equip himself to take care of me. He ran a checklist through his mind: we have long-term insurance; had I paid the credit card bills. . . ?
He led me to the bedroom, sat me on the bed, and started packing a bag.
“I am taking you to the hospital.”
“Because you are disoriented.”
“I should remove my contact lenses.” I said, lucid.
He fished through my pocket book for my health insurance card and ID, all the while, keeping an eye on me.
“What day of the week is it?”
“It’s Tuesday,” he helped me with my jacket.
“What day of the week is it?”
He told me. I repeated my question.
He held my hand, led me out of the apartment, into a cab, and to the Emergency Room at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
“Altered mental status,” the Triage Nurse noted, and whisked me in. By the time Khalid turned in the forms, I was already in Radiology, getting a CT scan.
It was then that he called the children and told them that Mummy may have had a stroke. They are not children—they are married with children—but they are still our children.
“It’s not a stroke,” our daughter-in-law, an internist who lives in New Jersey, ruled. “She has Transient Global Amnesia.”
She explained that it occurs in people over 50; can be triggered by severe emotional or physical stress—in this case, perhaps violent coughing. Ability to form new memories vanishes, short term loss is temporary, and it seldom occurs again. “Asking the same question repeatedly is called ‘Broken Record Syndrome’.”
CT was negative.
“Where am I?” I asked Khalid.
“You are in the hospital.”
“Why am I here?”
“Because you were disoriented.”
The E.R. doctor took my history. Khalid, an oncologist, watched me recall from my long-term memory bank, all the facts with precision: age: 63; my appendix surgery at age 13, medication: Levothyroxine, 88mg. . . . When the doctor asked me what I did today, I couldn’t remember. When he asked me what I did on the weekend (it was Mothers Day), I couldn’t remember.
A neurology consult was called, and the doctor told Khalid that with stroke ruled out, they are looking at a working diagnosis of—you got it—just what my daughter-in-law had said.
“What time is it?” I asked Khalid.
“Its 1:00 a.m.”
“You should go home and get some rest.” I remember saying.
When I woke up, he and my son Asim were by my side. By early afternoon, the fog began to lift, and by the time the neurologist made his rounds, I was almost with it.
“I am going to tell you a name, city, and an address. Then I am going to ask you to repeat it,” the doctor said.
I passed the test. My immediate memory drive was back in service.
“Now I will ask you a few questions, and at the end, I will ask you to tell me the same name, place and address.”
“What did you do yesterday morning?” he asked.
I told him.
“What did you do after that?”
I got that right too.
“What did you do after dinner?”
“I can’t recall.”
“Do you remember coming to the hospital?”
“Do you know what happened in the E.R.?”
He then asked me to repeat the name, place, and address.
I was discharged with a diagnosis of Transient Global Amnesia.
In the cab, my cell phone rang. “It’s Aneela,” she said.
“I don’t remember you,” I said.
“Just kidding,” I chuckled. “Now I can get away with anything.”
I had gotten away with a near miss. What if this had not been transient. What if I was alone when it happened. Events of the seven hours from the moment I started coughing, to 1:00 a.m. the next morning, are permanently erased from my hard drive. I only know of what happened because Khalid related it to me. What I don’t remember will be a constant reminder of what I almost lost, and God’s precious gift of memory.