On Oct. 15, Scott Smith, then 39, father of three and owner of SKB Insurance, did not know his name or the name of the stranger in the hospital room who seemed important. That stranger was his wife, Kim, of 13 years.
Three days earlier, the two were conversing as they prepared for dinner when he collapsed and suffered a seizure-like attack. When he began to regain consciousness two hospitals later, his mind was like a computer hard drive that had been wiped clean. He could speak English, but he had no memories and little knowledge. When a nurse asked if he recognized Kim, he said nothing.
"One of the hard things was ‘I love you,’" he said Monday as they sat together at their living room table just outside of Bryant. "I had no idea what love was. They sent me home with a stranger from the hospital. And I told the doctor, I was like, ‘Well, at least she’s good-looking.’"
What’s it like when your husband doesn’t recognize you? Kim didn’t really realize the depth of the memory loss until they left the hospital and he didn’t recognize any landmarks on the way home, nor his house, nor his children. At first, he just wanted to go back to the hospital — the only place in the world that was familiar.
"I had to explain to him that the nurses, they’re not your family," she said. "They’re not even your friends. They’re there doing a service. That was their job. … This is where you’re loved and where you belong."
For six weeks, Scott barely left the bedroom as he tried to put the pieces of the puzzle back together. Basic knowledge, facts, understanding the way the world works — all of that returned pretty quickly. Staring intently at a World Series baseball game, he soon understood what was happening, for example.
But personal memories were slower. For weeks, Kim and the children were living with a stranger, and they were strangers to him. Looking at photos didn’t help, and still doesn’t.
Then one day a flood of memories returned. When Kim found him cleaning one of the children’s rooms upstairs, he asked her, "Did you feel underdressed when you wore jeans and a blouse and I wore khakis and a shirt during our first date?’"
Doctors said it would all come back, but it hasn’t yet. Childhood memories are vivid, but much of the past 10-12 years is fuzzy. He remembers his wedding day and the pink Razorbacks outfit worn by middle child Brenna at the hospital, but he doesn’t remember the birth of his youngest daughter, Bradie.
Doctors don’t know what happened, which means they can’t promise that it won’t happen again. He does not have epilepsy or a tumor, and no brain cells have died. The physical problems – a loss of peripheral vision and some hearing loss – have been on the left side, so maybe he had some kind of stroke.
They’re not quite to this story’s happily-ever-after phase. He now has occasional migraines. He tried to hit the restart button on his insurance agency in January and worked too hard too soon, and now there are a few short-term memory issues. He can’t work yet.
Something else happened to Scott: He gained a new perspective. His personality hasn’t undergone a wholesale change, but he’s less tightly wound. Before the episode, he was negative sometimes, and he was pushing himself unhealthily. He’d sold a business, had a bad experience working for a big company, and started his insurance agency in July, so he had been working like crazy for a long time. He’d run for office unsuccessfully twice. Maybe his body or his brain rebelled.
Now he doesn’t let things bother him anymore. In fact, he’s the one who often reassures Kim, always the more laid-back of the two, about their priorities and about what really doesn’t matter. Maybe he had to be taught a lesson.
"I couldn’t get a cold," he joked. "I have to get something just full-blown."
He does mourn the memories that haven’t returned, but as a friend reminded him, he can’t be sure he had them all in the first place. Life gets so busy, and it’s easy to get distracted and miss the small stuff. So now he makes sure, when the opportunity arises, to concentrate on the details to make sure a memory lasts. He knows, better than anyone, that sometimes it doesn’t.
"You appreciate the day more," he said. "You appreciate the moment more; you appreciate the memory that you just made; you appreciate the memory that you had last week … and you just cherish those because life wasn’t taken away from us, but a portion of life was."
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.