01 Aug Is This My Shirt…Really?
In the summer of 2013, we were in Cambridge, England, leading a series of seminars when Shya unexpectedly had a dramatic episode that we later discovered was an extremely rare condition. Other people who went through this type of episode have generally viewed it as a deeply upsetting, fearful event. But fortunately for the two of us, being present and taking things moment-by moment had prepared us to deal with this circumstance with humor and ease. This is what happened from Ariel’s point of view:
It started on a Wednesday in Cambridge, England. Shya and I were scheduled to lead a seminar about
Instantaneous Transformation for a local group that evening and we had some “afternoon delight” followed by a nap. We thought we would feel refreshed, but it didn’t work out the way we had planned.
We were lounging in bed, enjoying a bit of post-coital languor, drowsy and sated and drifting toward sleep.
Lying on our left sides, I had placed Shya’s hand on my shoulder. Several weeks prior I’d had shoulder surgery and I was still feeling its effects. His hand was warm and soothing on the ache and our conversation would have been largely forgotten had things not taken a sharp turn.
“Ariel,” Shya said, “when you had your shoulder surgery, I know we spent the night in an apartment but I can’t remember where it was.”
“Neither can I,” I replied.
“How did we get that apartment?” he asked.
“Through the hospital.”
“What was your doctor’s name again?”
“Dr. Glashow,” I said. I was warm and cozy and the conversation was slow and easy.
“I don’t really know where I am right now,” Shya said.
This was not a particularly unusual statement. We travel so much we may go to sleep in three different locations or countries on three subsequent days. When we wake up, we have to remember the room, the surroundings and the city we’re in. It isn’t disconcerting. It’s more like emerging from a fog into the clarity of who we are in a particular time and space.
“Where are we?” Shya asked.
“In Cambridge,” I replied drowsily.
“Yes, Cambridge, England.”
“What are we doing here?”
“We’re doing a group here tonight.”
“We are? How did we get here?”
By now I was beginning to perk up a bit as I realized that Shya’s questions were somewhat odd yet sincere. “You know,” I said. “We flew in from Helsinki. You just spent a week in Russia.”
“Russia! Me? No. What was I doing in Russia?”
My eyes flew open and I quickly sat up. For an entire year Shya and I had planned a salmon fishing adventure in Russia, but in the months preceding the trip, our plans had radically changed. I had developed a condition called “frozen shoulder,” an extremely painful affliction, and I was advised by Dr. Glashow that I would still be in no shape to go, so our friend, Peter, took my place. Shya and Peter had gone together and Shya had tied fishing flies for months prior to the trip. From the questions Shya was asking, I knew something was seriously amiss.
“You went to Russia to go salmon fishing,” I said staring at him.
“Yes, you went with Peter, remember?”
Shya’s mouth dropped open and the look on his face was incredulous. “Peter?!” he blurted out. “Peter? We went to Russia with Peter?”
“No, I couldn’t go because I had shoulder surgery,” I reminded him.
It was clear that something was desperately wrong. “Hang on, Shya,” I said. “You might be having a stroke. I’m going to get you a baby aspirin.”
I jumped up and began rooting around on the desk until I found the little snack bag filled with Shya’s vitamins that contained a baby aspirin. I’d heard that if someone was having an episode, taking a baby aspirin would act as a blood thinner and could make the difference between life and death. In the moment, I couldn’t remember if this applied only to heart attacks or also to strokes but I figured it couldn’t hurt. I handed him a glass of water and put the aspirin on his tongue. “Here, drink this,” I said as I picked up the phone and dialed “0.”
“Front Desk, this is Vanessa.”
“Do you have a doctor here?”
“No but we can get one. Do you need an ambulance?”
That question caught me off guard. “I don’t know,” I said. “My husband is extremely disoriented.”
“I can get you an ambulance if you need one,” she exclaimed. I heard a resounding click and looked at the phone in my hand. “She hung up on me!” I said.
Assuming she was calling the doctor or ordering an ambulance, I started getting us ready.
“I’m confused,” Shya said. “Now, where am I?”
“You’re in Cambridge, honey.”
He paused and said, “I’m confused. What just happened?”
“We’re in Cambridge to lead a group…”
“Yes. We had sex.”
“Yes, and suddenly you got disoriented.”
The phone rang. The ambulance was on its way.
“Let’s get you dressed,” I said, pulling on my own clothes. “I’m getting your underwear.”
“I have underwear?”
“Yes, how about jeans?” I asked as I pulled a pair off a hanger.
“Jeans would be fine.”
Shya had slipped into his underwear and I pointed to the shirt he’d been wearing earlier. “Put on your shirt, sweetheart.”
Shya lifted the slate-grey long-sleeved t-shirt. It was a brand he had researched prior to the Russian trip, made of lightweight wool that would keep a person warm in winter and cool in summer. He’d been wearing it almost like a uniform, but now, he held the t-shirt in two hands as if he’d never seen it before. His face took on a look of wonder.
“Is this my shirt…Really?”
“Yes, Shya. Put it on,” I said evenly.
Shya pulled on his shirt and I got him his socks and shoes and I got my own.
“I’m confused. Now where are we?” he asked.
“We’re in Cambridge,” I said.
“Yes. We had sex and then you became confused. The ambulance is on its way. You just came back from Russia where you were fishing for salmon.”
I kept up a steady stream of conversation as I grabbed my phone to call our friend Menna to alert her that we would not be able to make the event we were scheduled to lead in just a few hours. Suddenly I felt as if I were operating like Menna and her husband Artur. Earlier in the day, they were being loving and respectful to their toddler Oscar, even though he wasn’t talking a lot just yet. I couldn’t imagine them getting irritated with him when he grew into the repetitive-question phase so I patiently answered each of Shya’s questions as if they were new and had never been asked before.
Menna assured me she would take care of things, not to worry (bless her), and she promised to bicycle over to the hospital to meet us.
“I’m confused,” Shya said, standing in the middle of the room. “I see fly rods in the corner. That must mean something.”
“Yes, you went fly fishing in Russia.”
“Russia? Really? We did?”
“Yes. You and Peter went fishing in Russia.”
“Peter? We went fishing with Peter!?”
We went through the series of questions and answers once again and for a moment I got tight. My tone of voice changed and it immediately translated itself to Shya who suddenly became slightly agitated. I became aware of my change in attitude and let it go without being hard on myself for having gotten disturbed in the first place. Oh, well, I thought with a slight smile, he won’t remember it in a moment anyway.
Shya paused and then he said again, “I’m confused. Now what happened?”
“It’s alright honey. We had sex and…”
“Was it good sex?” He asked innocently.
Innocently is the only way to describe it. It wasn’t an embarrassing subject. Of course it shouldn’t be after more than three decades together. It was a simple question, sincerely posed by a sweet, sweet man who was my husband and yet…
“Yes, it was very good sex,” I said, laying my hand on his cheek. It was odd that Shya was so himself and yet not. It was as if his life had been distilled to this moment. While he clearly had no history, not even immediate history, he still retained his fundamental self, his innocence, his wonder, his love, his heart.
There was a knock on the door. It was the receptionist, portable phone in hand, which she gave me. She had been talking to the emergency operator who began by asking me a series of questions. The operator wanted me to count Shya’s breaths, to say “now” each time he inhaled. I asked Shya to sit on the end of the bed and he obediently did so, waiting for what came next, although I suspect he wasn’t actually waiting for anything. He was lost in a state of being or perhaps in stasis. I couldn’t see his breath clearly.
“She wants me to count your breaths,” I said.
In a childlike manner, he drew in a big lung-full and let it go.
“Now,” I said and then we repeated the process and counted. The room phone rang once again. The ambulance had arrived. I said we would come down and they said no, that they would come to us. Of course that made sense. For a moment I had forgotten that Shya probably shouldn’t navigate the stairs. He seemed so himself – yet not.
The two ambulance guys arrived. Chris, a man in his mid-thirties with ginger brown hair and beard and Tom, slightly younger with a very round face, came into our room and began to assess the situation.
“What happened?” Chris asked.
Shya said, “I’m confused. Now, what happened?”
“We had sex,” I told Chris and Shya. “I went to the bathroom and when I came back, we started chatting and all of a sudden he became extremely disoriented.”
“Where am I?” Shya asked.
“You’re in Cambridge, England,” I replied.
“I don’t really understand what happened,” he said.
“That’s alright, honey, that’s why these men are here.”
That was when I became aware of something. Prior to the arrival of the EMTs, I’d been calm, directed and managing the situation as if it were urgent yet there was no panic, no emotionality. There was only this moment and actions to be taken to address what was unfolding before me. When Chris and Tom stepped in, that reality changed. During my initial conversation with them I started moving toward being less than capable. A quaver entered my voice. I was almost in tears. Perhaps, given the situation, this was expected. It was as if I wanted to abdicate responsibility to someone who “knew what to do” so I could let go.
I stood there for a brief moment and collected myself. I had started to become emotionally distraught by taking the first step down the road of “I want someone else to handle this, it’s too much for me.” I reeled myself back. (Thank goodness for all those years fighting wily fish.) I realized that getting panicked or emotional would only complicate things. I remembered that when I had briefly become agitated, it was passed on to Shya. So when Shya had asked me the same question for the tenth or twentieth time, I didn’t say, “You’re still in Cambridge. You’ve asked me that twenty times!” I simply listened to the question and answered it as best I could in that moment.
Chris asked Shya to sit once again on the end of the bed and he began to ask the standard types of questions to evaluate the situation. Asking Shya to remove his shirt, he squatted down in front of him and began to prepare the sticky pads to place on his chest for the portable EKG machine to monitor Shya’s heart rate.
“Sir, how old are you?” he asked.
“Se…” Shya looked perplexed and gave me a look that seemed to say, Help me out here, would you?
“He’s seventy-two,” I said.
Stunned, Chris rocked back on his heels. I thought he might land on his behind. “No!” Chris said. “He can’t be seventy-two. You aren’t that old, sir. When is your birthday?”
Shya knew the answer to this. Like a youngster about to recite something he was extremely pleased to be getting right, Shya sat up proudly and with emphatic bobs of the head on all the appropriate syllables he said, “February 4, 1941.”
“Wow, he looks great for his age,” said Tom.
We were ready to go and I surprised myself by having the presence of mind to lock Shya’s watch and wallet in the safe after removing his I.D. and insurance cards. I placed his shirt and jacket in a bag, donned my vest, grabbed my cell phone, money, my credit cards and the room key and we were on our way.
It was my first experience being in an ambulance. Shya’s too, although he doesn’t remember it. I was buckled into a seat on the left, facing the gurney where Shya was sitting up, strapped in. The ceaseless commentary and questioning continued. “I don’t really know where I am,” he said.
“That’s alright honey, you don’t need to,” I said, brushing his hair from his forehead. “We’re in Cambridge in an ambulance, heading to the hospital.”
I answered Shya’s questions and carried on a conversation with Chris at the same time. He thought Shya might have had a stroke, but he encouraged me by saying that we were headed to Addenbrooke’s, one of the best hospitals in all of England.
A few amusing or compelling moments during that ride have stayed with me. Shya pulled out the waistband of his jeans a few times and said with a sense of wonder and gusto, “I’m wearing underwear! You must have dressed me.”
Chris told Tom to turn on the lights and the siren, assuring me that nothing was wrong but traffic was heavy and time might be of the essence. He was clearly worried and wanted to make sure Shya got to a physician as soon as possible. Somewhere along the ride, Chris stared at Shya’s muscle tone, the definition in his shoulders, biceps, pecs and abs, and he blurted out, “How do you stay so fit?”
“Lots of sex!” Shya stated emphatically.
I choked back a laugh as Chris, clearly embarrassed, blushed. This was my husband, even if he didn’t know who he was or where he was.
The next few hours were a bit of a whirlwind with blood samples, EKGs, taking his temperature, lights shined in each eye to judge his pupil response and a CT scan of his head. During this time, Menna arrived and it was a blessed relief to have a friend with me who knew the hospital system because she’d had her baby there.
“Menna!” Shya shouted with joy, “I know you!” Shya was clearly thrilled to see her, too.
As the hours went by, Shya’s episodes of lucidity lengthened and he started remembering conversations for longer stretches of time. Instead of asking repetitive questions every minute, then every two minutes, it became a cycle of five minutes and more. But he was still hazy about what had come before. “Russia!? I was in Russia?” he asked once again when he was sitting semi-upright in the hospital bed in the observation area.
I had an inspiration. “I know how to get you to remember Russia,” I said. “Remember the mosquitoes?” Shya and Peter had been there during mosquito season and had reported that the bugs had been fierce, especially in their sleeping quarters. I leaned close to Shya’s ear and let out a high pitched whine, the annoying sound a mosquito makes buzzing your ear when you’re trying to sleep. Shya became animated. Brushing at his ear to get me to go away, he said, “I remember Russia!” And he did…at least for the next five minutes.
Pretty soon, we began making jokes about having “mind-blowing sex,” entertaining ourselves by watching his heart rate spike on the monitor when I kissed his forehead. As the afternoon moved on toward evening, I suddenly recalled that Shya had been in a slight boating accident in Russia. Both he and Peter had fallen backward and hit their heads when their guide got distracted and the boat hit a rock. I called Peter to get the details in case this was information that the doctors needed. When I handed the phone to Shya, he began to joke with Peter.
“What did you say your name was?” Shya quipped. We all laughed. “I’m coming back!” he said, clearly happy that his head was clearing. But in a short while, when he didn’t recall having spoken with Peter, I realized we weren’t out of the woods just yet.
Shya’s doctors decided he should spend the night in the hospital so he could get a more comprehensive MRI the following morning. They were mystified by his condition. Obviously there was a disruption in his memory, but each time they tested his strength, ability to move, lift his eyebrows, smile and frown, there were no telltale signs of physical impairment or drooping facial muscles that are common in stroke victims.
At about 9 P.M., when Menna and I got Shya dinner and brought it back to the ward, he said, “You came back!” in a childlike manner once again, clearly delighted to see us. After Shya finished his meal, Menna and I left for the night and although it was strange to be in the hotel room without him, I had a fairly restful night. When I returned early the next morning, Shya was finally back to himself, telling the nurses that an MRI wasn’t necessary.
It turned out he was right. No MRI was needed. In the early afternoon, the neurologist arrived and asked Shya a series of questions. At the end of the examination the doctor said, “Right, then. This was a textbook case of Transient Global Amnesia. It happens when the blood flow to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that creates and stores memories, gets disrupted for a moment. It can happen to someone standing on the top of a ladder and reaching up with his head at an angle and straining. Or, like in this case, it can happen during intercourse. It’s very rare and it’s highly unlikely it will ever happen again.”
Transient Global Amnesia? We had never heard of such a thing.
“That’s it really,” the doctor said. “You can go home now.”
Shya was released and as we walked back down corridors that Shya didn’t recall, we were giddy, like two school children given a reprieve and let out of class early. Our steps were lively, our hearts were light and things were easy between us as we grinned and joked about the effects of truly mind-blowing sex.
We went to see Artur and Menna and then we went out for a meal. It was great to have my husband back, but in truth, I never lost him. He had simply been distilled down to the moment and if I didn’t run forward or back in time in my own mind, being with him was delicious.
This experience has left me at peace about our “old age.” From time to time in the past, the unknown of the future had brought up some unease about how life would be and how I’d handle things if Shya were to become infirm. Would I be OK? I had quietly wondered. What would it be like? After I was thrown into the crucible of profound change, I discovered once again that I am much more than my story or any ideas I have about my own limitations. I also rediscovered the perfection of the moment and I surprised myself by how truly capable I am.
In the days and weeks following Shya’s altered state, when we searched the web to find out more about Transient Global Amnesia, we found several stories where people described the experience as awful, extremely stressful, upsetting and frightening. Most folks who had TGA had become agitated and fearful and people who have heard Shya’s story since have often asked me, “Didn’t you freak out?” or “Weren’t you afraid?”
It never occurred to me to worry, freak out or be afraid. Freaking out would not have helped the situation. Terrorizing myself with possible futures would not have indicated that I was more caring and it wouldn’t have proved that I loved Shya more. It really is all about Being Here, and saying Yes to your life, regardless of the circumstances.