Reflections on my memory: You don't know what you've got til its gone
Toward the end of last year, I was in a car accident (I'm fine now, just to be clear from the get-go!). A learner driver failed to give way at an intersection and drove directly into the drivers' side of my car. Shock does funny things, because I remember thinking that I should look up and let the other driver know that I was okay, but I felt frozen, like I couldn't move. Just blank. I eventually 'defrosted', got out of the car via the passenger side door and called my boyfriend to come and help me.
Being the darling that he is, he was much more concerned about me than he was about the damage that my poor little car had sustained (RIP Ruby). Also a paramedic, he was very concerned when I told him that it hurt to turn my head to either side. I told him I felt fine, but a little dazed. He called for an ambulance and asked me to remain still, just to be safe.
Very quickly the ambulance arrived, assessed me, and deemed it necessary that I be spinally immobilised (I thought that it was massive overkill at the time, but grateful to those lovely girls for doing their job). I was put in a neck brace, strapped to a spinal board and taken to the emergency department of our little local hospital on the ASAP (no lights and sirens, unfortunately).
Now, as a Speech Pathologist who has worked in a rehabilitation setting, I think I should have been more worried at this stage. But I was mostly numb, still in shock, and annoyed about the likely loss of my beloved car.
I was rushed to a bay in the emergency department and given a myriad of tests and scans. One of the first tests was a standard test of orientation. As a clinician, administering a test such as this was part of my bread and butter, a routine that I went through with almost every client I had encountered:
Can you tell me your name? Jessica Young.
Can you tell me where you are? In the emergency department of the Hospital.
Can you tell me which hospital? ... I told her the correct one.
Can you tell me what day it is? ..... Jessica? Can you tell me what day it is today?
I had nothing. I couldn't for the life of me remember the day.
I started to panic. I am someone who usually knows what the day is. I keep a detailed diary. What day was it?!?! I started to cry. I had lost my memory, even if only for a moment, and it was terrifying. The nurse tried to reassure me that everything was going to be okay, then left the bay to give me some space.
After a moment of sheer panic, it came to me. Tuesday! It must be Tuesday because I had been driving to my favourite gym class, which is always held on a Tuesday night. The relief I felt was overwhelming. I yelled it out with relief, hoping that the nurse would hear me.
As someone researching dementia, with a keen interest in what it is like to for people living with dementia (some call this 'the lived experience') this got me thinking: what if it hadn't eventually come to me? What if I couldn't tell what day it was? What if I never knew if it was Monday or Friday, June or December, 2018 or 1999? Would that feeling of panic and terror ever have gone away?
From this brief experience I learned of the great importance I place on my own memory, my cognition. I find it utterly fascinating that not for one moment did I have a second thought about my legs, my arms, my spine. As a researcher and aspiring academic in the study of dementia, it was my mind I was concerned with. My mind is a huge part of my life, my living, my identity. From now on, I will keep this at the forefront of my mind when I meet new people with dementia. Perhaps they place the same importance on their mind as I do. I hope that this gives me the opportunity to be more empathetic and compassionate. This is always my goal.