Field of Science

Life and lemons: The Memory Addition

About two weeks ago I opened my eyes realized I was in a strange room laying in a strange bed. I saw my ex-wife sitting off to the side. Other people were around. I thought to myself 'oh shit! wtf happened?!' I then immediately passed out.
What you see  ~1nsec before 'WTF?!'' leaves your lips.
At least I think that's what happened. The last thing I remember, in real time, was attending a talk given by a colleague on a Friday afternoon. But since that time, I have learned a lot about human memory using an experiential approach. At some point after the talk, probably the next day, I had a number of seizures that seem to have been fairly significant. I was then unconscious and kept alive via a ventilator for a couple of days. Not sure what drugs, besides anti-seizure medication, I was given but they behaved more powerfully than aspirin. Of course, I'm also not sure how much residual burn-out there was from the massive neuronal firing that took place in my brain.
From here: I was probably the brain in the lower right UPDATE: lower left
So as I slowly recuperate (not actually that slow considering), I figure I will document some things I learn by going through this process. I should probably point out that nothing like this has ever happened to me before. I did knock myself out once, for a minute or two, in graduate school playing wallyball, which sent me to the hospital with a concussion. I also smacked my head pretty good as an undergraduate, which did not send me to the hospital, but may have caused a concussion. Otherwise, I have never had seizures nor had many head injuries. At least not that I remember.

Not that I remember. This is what I have experienced since waking up. I have been amazed at the specificity of what I have forgotten, the extent that my memory has lapsed, the rapidity with which I think I can effectively think again, yet the areas where I still have difficulties.

Again, I remember going to my colleague's talk. I think I remember the general topic discussed, however I am generally familiar with what my colleagues do, so maybe this reflects more long-term memory and not actual memory of the talk. I remember transforming a yeast species Friday morning (sadly that experiment was lost over the intervening week and a half and was needed for an R21 resubmission due in a week (some of that preliminary data they can't ask for)). After the talk, some friends offered to take me to a local bar for a celebratory birthday beer. I didn't mention this started on or around my birthday? Oh well, happy birthday to me. I had one beer and then went home. All this other stuff, I had to be told by others. I have no recollection of even discussing going out afterwards. The only reason we know I made it home is that that is where the police found me just before getting an ambulance the next day. My memory really stops at ~5PM on Friday and again no injury occurred at this time. It is a viable hypothesis that my friends promised to take me out this week instead and are using my memory loss to their advantage.

On Saturday, I was expected at the airport to pick up my family and at some point I sent a text message letting them know I saw the flight was on time. Again, no record of any of this exists in my brain. No record of anything from Saturday exists.

I did not arrive at the airport, which was met with surprise. I consider myself dependable and generally succeed at arriving early for things like this. Further surprise occurred when I did not answer a phone. At this point or not too long thereafter (sorry but I was unconscious), my family called some friends for a ride. They also called the police. Things got a bit weird here, initially the Minneapolis police department was contacted, I'm guessing because 911 was dialed as people drove through Minneapolis. The Minneapolis police department told them to call back in 24 hours. I probably would have been dead, so thanks for those birthday wishes. After my son was taken care of and situated my ex and a friend called my hometown police, who decided to check out the house. They even exited their vehicle and looked in the windows where I was observed seizing. Deciding that 24 hours might be a bit long to wait, they simply kicked in a door and started keeping me alive. I was already in the back of the ambulance getting ready to hit a hospital by the time my friends and ex arrived to the scene. (Full disclosure, I heard these details several times, but I was still on the foggy-side, so it's possible a detail or two is not exactly correct.

So ventilator for a couple of days, then awake. (This is definitely one place an exclamation point would never be appropriate.) I think it was two days before I actually began to sense that the fog was lifting. I was walking, initially with a walker but by Thursday on my own. I could actually read, at least my brain seemed to be able to concentrate and focus well enough to read. I read about 20 pages of a book I was 3/4 of the way through. I currently remember those 20 pages, but there are several hundred pages I've lost. I've gone back to reread hoping to spur some memory, but nothing. I remember looking forward to finishing the book and being done with it, I don't think it's worth going back to near the beginning and rereading knowing how I feel throughout the rest of the book. The interesting thing to me is that these 100s of pages were read weeks before the seizure. Yet they are gone.

Once I could type reasonably well (I'm still getting better at it), I contacted my undergraduates to let them know what happened and have them contact me. One of them, who was continuing a project from the fall, had to remind me the specific experiments being done that week, but I knew the goals of the project. However, for the other students I had no clue. I couldn't have given you a reasonable guess. The thing was I could have listed all the things I wanted done in the lab and the projects I wanted to move forward. I simply could not look at one list and tell you who was working on what parts.

I know my son and I went to see the Lego Movie. I know Chris Pratt played the lead character. Otherwise, nothing. Can't tell you the plot, other than it was lego-centric, but duh!

I've looked at my calendar and I will see something out of the ordinary and haven't the slightest idea what it's for. I was planning to submit a fungal white paper next week, I guess. No idea what it was for. Doesn't even matter, spending the last two weeks either in the hospital (week 1) or slowly getting my shit back together (week 2), there's no way I can complete it in time. I know how to cook, I know how to get around on roads (although I am not allowed to drive for 3 months). I know how to do laundry. I remember how to play my flute and can still figure out music fairly well by ear. I can type, email, etc. although these higher level motor skills take a bit longer than they used too. Still every day is better.

I can read science papers, albeit slowly. I can focus on seminars and can identify areas to question, however it is more difficult vocalizing that question. That may have as much to do with the chunk from the side of my tongue I bit off as anything else.

So while I am still going to take it slow for a few weeks or at least not push myself too hard, it's good to see improvement. It's also interesting to experience the short-term memory losses associated with the seizure, not a good thing , but interesting. It's amazing how fragile memory is and really begs the question 'what is memory?' Maybe neurologists have a handle on this answer, but I am not aware of it.