Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Jim Stingl column
Feb 16, 2013 (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
For one frightening and frustrating day, Dan Hermsen lost his memory.
He remembered who he was, but not where he worked. He knew his three daughters' names, but not their ages or where they lived. He forgot his own address, the date and the fact that his parents are dead. He kept asking why he was in a hospital and how he got there, and then forgetting the answers as soon as he heard them.
Dan knows now that he experienced something freaky called transient global amnesia. It's a rare sudden memory interruption that typically lasts one day and never comes back. Doctors believe it's caused by a change in blood flow to the part of the brain that categorizes brain input and turns it into memories.
Dan is someone I know from the gym and on Facebook. He lives in Wauwatosa, is 57 years old and works as a psychotherapist. He suffers from migraine headaches, a risk factor for this quick-hit amnesia.
This all started the morning of Feb. 3, a Sunday. Dan was enjoying a leisurely morning at home. He went online to send an email to a friend in Germany whose daughter had experienced a seizure.
"From my perspective, virtually the next thing I remember is that it's 6 o'clock at night, I'm in a hospital bed, and there's a marker board on the wall that says, 'Dan, you've got amnesia. Call me if you have any questions.' "
It was signed Deb, and she added "your wife" just in case that connection had blipped from his memory banks. After being with Dan all day at Froedtert Hospital, Deb had gone home to check on their youngest daughter, Emma, 12.
Except for fleeting images in his mind, most of what Dan knows about this whole ordeal comes from Deb. Dan not only lost big chunks of his memory, but now he has only the faintest memory of losing that memory. Like I said, freaky.
Deb came home from walking the dog that morning and found her husband of 24 years in a confused state. He had just sent a lucid email to his friend in Germany, but now was expressing that he had no idea what any of that was about.
Emma chimed in. "Mom," she said, "I'm glad you're home. Dad asked me eight times where you were. He just kept asking me."
"Dan sat down on a chair," Deb said, "and he said, 'Ask me questions! Ask me questions!' And I'm quickly on the Internet looking up the signs of stroke."
She got Dan in the car and headed for the hospital. She quizzed him on the way and realized he had forgotten that the Super Bowl was later that day and which teams were playing. He had no idea. It was like he had just arrived in his own life.
Deb told me, "The weirdest thing about this, and I've read about it since, is that he had a very prescribed repertoire of sentences. He would say the same thing over and over and over again in the same wording and intonation: 'How did I get here Did you drive me here Where's Emma Was Emma scared ' Those same four questions I probably answered 100 times that day."
Dan was given an alphabet soup of tests, including a CT scan, an MRI and EEG, plus blood work. A stroke, seizure, tumor, and blood sugar problems were ruled out. It was becoming clear that he had transient global amnesia.
It's as if someone turns off the tape recorder of your mind, leaving you disoriented, said Piero Antuono, a neurologist at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Triggers can include a sudden change in body temperature from entering cold or hot water, strenuous physical activity and emotional distress from receiving bad news. It's more likely in people over 50.
"The person cannot store ongoing facts, ongoing events. In other words, the laying down of memory traces, which is happening right now as we're talking, that doesn't happen. So you look back two seconds, and there's nothing," Antuono said.
"The person generally notices that they are not themselves, that they have entered into a world of their own, a trance of some sort," the doctor said. "It's very alarming. Everyone thinks they're having a stroke. But in spite of the dramatic presentation, it's a very benign prognosis."
The Hermsens have been hearing from friends that they knew someone who once had this. Dan and Deb, a psychologist, have told their story to other mental health professionals at work, and most of them had never heard of this ailment.
Once Deb knew that Dan's condition was not more serious, she began to indulge her own fascination with what she was witnessing. His sense of humor seemed to return in the midst of all this, and during a phone call with daughter Samantha, 20, a student in Minnesota, he called her his favorite turtle. He used the same joke, assuming he was joking, seconds later.
He forgot that their oldest daughter, Maria, 23, had graduated from college in Oregon last year, even though the family had traveled out there to see it. But it has all come back to him now. The doctors sent him home the next day after he proved he could recall at least four words from a list of six.
Dan is fine and back at work. He passed the first memory test many of us face every day. He remembered his computer password.
Call Jim Stingl at (414) 224-2017 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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