Sudden Memory Loss: My Husband's Story
Just another Day
Most people would like to have an unforgettable vacation. Last year, we certainly managed that, for a peculiar reason. Halfway through our break, my husband, Mark, lost his memory.
The first week of our stay in Wales was lovely. Blue skies, barbeques, beautiful scenery. We enjoyed visiting favourite old haunts. If it hadn't been for Mark having a migraine virtually daily, everything would have been perfect.
On the middle Friday, Mark decided to play tennis with our younger son, Sam. We left Josh having a lie in, and headed off to the local town, where the guys hit the leisure centre and I went for a stroll. After a potter round the shops, I headed back to watch the end of their match. But as I reached the car, I saw that Mark was sitting in the passenger seat, with Sam standing by him looking flustered.
"Where have you been?" Sam asked. "Didn't you get my messages?" Mobile phone reception is poor in that area. "Dad's gone all weird. He sat down on the tennis court, then forgot where he was."
Mark looked perfectly normal. "Are you okay now?" I asked him.
"Of course I am. Don't know why Sam thinks there's a problem." No slurring. I decided to check for signs of a stroke. Mark could hold both arms in the air and smile properly. Then he said, "I'm guessing we're in Wales; those road signs are in Welsh." A shiver went down my spine. He couldn't remember what time of year it was, how long we'd been on holiday, where we were staying, or that Josh was with us.
Sudden memory loss calls for immediate medical attention. It was time for a trip to the local hospital.
The nurse at the walk-in clinic took Mark through straight away. She said there were no doctors in the hospital until later that afternoon, then ran a series of tests, checking Mark's neurological status. Though calm and co-operative, he kept asking why he was there. He'd repeat the same phrase over and over, saying he had a sense of deja-vu. The nurse asked what his job was. He replied that he was a civil servant, but wasn't sure what he actually did. Mark kept looking down at his clothes, saying, "I'm guessing I've been playing sport." Then he asked again if we were in Wales.
Soon the nurse popped out, and on return said she's arranged for Mark to be admitted to a larger hospital, about 26 miles away. An ambulance was on its way. I asked Sam to go with his dad as he'd witnessed the start of this, while I dashed off to collect Josh and follow them.
On arrival at Bangor hospital, we learned Mark had had a "funny turn," and had been taken to the resuscitation room as a precaution. My knees went weak. His paramedics were mystified. Mark had been talking, then went quiet and turned deathly pale. An ECG ruled out any heart problem, then he was sent to the Emergency Assessment Unit to await a head CT scan.
As the paramedics were leaving, Mark said, "Guys, before I forget, thanks for all your help." One of them patted his shoulder and said, "You've been thanking us all the way here, mate." A doctor examined Mark, who still didn't know why he was there. The doc asked him what was the last thing he could remember. Mark had no answer. A porter came and whisked him off for the scan.
Thankfully the CT scan showed no abnormalities. The docs still suspected a possible bleed on the brain, and wanted to do a lumbar puncture to check for blood in the spinal fluid. This proved tricky and ultimately unsuccessful, as, over time, three sets of doctors attempted to insert a needle into Mark's spine. When the third try did produce a sample, the doctor used the wrong sample bottle, and the labs couldn't test it. At least they saw that the fluid looked completely clear.
Luckily, we were allowed to stay with Mark on the unit, and spent a bizarre afternoon answering the same question a dozen or so times until something clicked in his head. Then the next question or comment would be repeated over and over. At one point I wrote an answer down so he could refer to it. He read it, then put the paper to one side and forgot it was there. My big guy had the memory span of a goldfish, and I began to wonder if this was how our life would be from now. It wasn't a good feeling.
Although this was a larger hospital, it didn't have any neurosurgeons or neurologists, and we were told Mark might be moved to a specialist unit in Liverpool, ninety minutes away.
At one point Mark grew upset, thinking he must have scared Sam, and got stuck in that scenario for a while. Thankfully, he moved on to planning his escape. "I'm bored now. Let's get the hell out of Dodge." Again, and again. It was like he was caught in a re-boot mode.
Signs of Hope
As the afternoon wore on, Mark suddenly said, "We went fishing, didn't we? Josh caught a carp." That had been three days earlier - it seemed a small breakthrough. Slowly, little comments showed Mark's memory was returning. Things were a bit patchy, but looking more hopeful. He ate his evening meal, making the same corny joke between each mouthful, then looked at the empty plate and asked whose it was. Soon, it was as if Mark was waking up, returning to normality. He could retain answers to his questions, and remember more of recent events. The repetitions lessened, apart from the requests to leave hospital, which the doctors were unhappy about. On their advice, he agreed to stay the night.
Unfortunately, things rolled slowly on for the next few days. Transferred to a ward, we were restricted to visiting hours, but at least Mark had a spectacular view of Mount Snowdon. The Rescue helicopter landing pad was also in view, and we joked that Prince William, who worked on the rescue service, kept popping by.
Reaching a Diagnosis
On the Tuesday, a neurologist from Liverpool came to visit. His diagnosis was that Mark's sudden memory loss was transient global amnesia, or TGA, in his case brought on by disruption from multiple migraines.
This condition is an odd phenomenon that's been medically recognised for around forty years. The sufferer retains social skills, usually recognises people they know, but forgets recent events. Typically, they will repeat the same phrases over and over in exactly the same manner. (This is one of the most striking features, and what helped the doctor to diagnose Mark.) Memory usually returns within twenty-four hours.
The consultant arranged a couple more tests, to be on the safe side, and the hospital let us go out in the evenings to have a meal together and throw a few stones on the beach. Mark's memory would lapse a little, which he put down to being in hospital with poor sleep. Thankfully, he was discharged just as we were due to return home.
When we managed to Google TGA, it looked like Mark's case was a classic example. He saw our family doctor, who said in all his years in practice, he'd only met one other person who'd experienced this form of sudden memory loss. It wasn't even a patient, but his own father-in-law. This phenomena usually only occurs once, though his father-in-law did have a second episode. The family recognised what was happening, and sent him to bed to sleep it off. I think I'd get a medical opinion before doing that!
TGA versus stroke or brain haemorage symptoms
Transient Global Amnesia
Possible stroke symptoms
Possible brain haemorage
Sudden loss of memory
Sudden onset of terrible headache
Unable to retain new information
Unable to hold both arms in the air
Repeats phrases in exactly the same manner
Photophobia (dislike of bright light)
May become scared or upset
One sided weakness
Usually recognises people
Unable to understand words
Possible drop in conciousness
Symptoms usually resolve within 24 hours
Unable to find right words to say
All's well that ends well
Thankfully, Mark's memory is now as good as ever. He takes migraine preventatives, as his headaches persisted for a while, and Sam refuses all offers of a game of tennis. Mark never has remembered anything about that day, from leaving the house around 10.30 am, until some time in the evening. Ignorance is bliss. The boys and I will never forget.