A Day to Remember

Losing my short-term memory is something my husband will never forget

The last thing I really remember, we were in the car and my husband was explaining in a tone of strained patience that he was taking me to the hospital because I didn't seem to know what was happening. Apparently, I had asked the question several times already.

I remember nothing of our arrival at the emergency room, being put on a gurney and rushed through the doors, the blood tests, the EKG, the CT and the neurological exams.

It had been a fairly normal rainy Sunday afternoon in the late spring, and we'd been fooling around, leisurely and deeply satisfyingly, in the way of two people who have known each other really well for a long time. We lay dozing and unwinding for a few minutes afterward, and then I suggested that we start thinking about putting the boat in the water for the season.

The only problem: We had sold the boat the year before.

At first, he thought I was joking, but within seconds he became concerned enough to ask me what day it was. I had no idea. I have some memory of him reminding me that we had sold our boat to a young guy named Forest; the name sounded familiar but I was genuinely surprised that we no longer had a boat.

Vaguely, even then, I was aware that this was not a good thing, and when my husband guardedly asked if I thought I needed to see a doctor, I agreed. After that, I have to take most of what happened the rest of that day on faith. I remember being in the car but not leaving the house or getting into it. All the rest is blank.

It wasn't until around midnight or so that I had the sensation of materializing in a hospital room, like coming down from a bad acid trip or waking up from a dream, and Ralph was saying that I seemed to be acting like myself again. When I answered "Barack Obama" to the doctor's question, it was with a ta-da flourish, but I had neither gotten the answer correct before (so I am told), nor did I have any recollection of having been asked.

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Transient global amnesia generally affects those between the ages of 40 and 80, and while it is often described as "being confused," it is actually an abrupt and profound disruption in short-term memory. A person having an attack of TGA will have no recall of recent events; he or she appears otherwise alert and lucid, will know who he is and the identity of close friends or family, but will have virtually no ability to establish new memories.

TGA was first described in 1956, the year I was born, but to this day, no one is really sure what causes it — although attacks are often precipitated by physical activity (including sex) or stress. There is no lasting damage and there is unlikely to ever be another episode.

To me, it felt like nothing at all. I only know I lost the better part of a day that I will never get back. My husband, though, tells me that for hours in the hospital, I asked the same questions, over and over, a characteristic symptom of TGA. I was fully awake and conversant throughout the whole ordeal, and demanded to know what was happening, again and again and again, unable to form a memory of either the question or the answer.

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At one point, the doctor assigned to my care, who could find nothing wrong in any of my test results, suggested that Ralph leave, in order to escape the stress of seeing me in that state. That emotional drain was the reason he agreed to have me admitted overnight, as much so that he could rest as so that I could be monitored.

The rest of that night in the hospital was one of the strangest of my life. I understood what the doctor had told us but I was still struggling to make sense of it. I had a terrible, hollow-feeling headache and asked for some aspirin and something to eat. Then I dozed, fitfully and dreamlessly, and each time I woke I would feel confused all over again.

Eventually, I realized that if the framed image on the wall at the foot of the bed was the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I must still be in the hospital, and that whatever had happened to me must be over, even if I couldn't recall it. That was a great comfort to me, to know that I had a tool I could use to figure out where I was.

Throughout it all, there was an extraordinary sensation of gradually coming back from some void, a whirring, almost audible maelstrom in my head — as if my brain was slipping and grasping and sliding back and forth, righting itself over time, as my thought process became more tangible.

By the time Ralph came to collect me in the morning, I had a million more questions. I made him explain to me, in great detail, what had happened and what I had done and what he had done and how he had felt. I could only completely understand if he told it to me.

I still have no memory of those eight hours or so, but Ralph may never be the same — he was terrified that day, convinced I was having a stroke. Now, more than a year later, if I have one of my more common brain lapses like forgetting to buy eggs or being unable to access a word on the tip of my tongue, he becomes watchful and concerned.

He has also managed to convey that fear to some of our friends. Once, when I was distracted on the phone with our friend Kathy and unable to name the building where she works, she hung up and immediately called Ralph. He didn't relax until I told him what day it was.