Living

Tim Woodward: The night I lost my marbles

As parties go, it was memorable.

Even though I forgot most of it.

What happened that evening was the sort of thing you don’t think will happen to you. It’s something you don’t think about at all because it’s off-the-charts weird. You think you could be in a car wreck someday, or have a heart attack or suffer any of the other misfortunes that commonly befall people, but losing your memory? Not even on the radar.

I’m lucky — well into my 60s and yet to spend a night in a hospital. That can make you complacent. You sail along from day to day and year to year assuming life will stay pretty much the same, but there are no guarantees. All of us are only one doctor’s visit away, one compromised cell or artery or stupid accident away from our lives changing dramatically.

My wake-up call wasn’t dramatic. Most of the people around me didn’t know anything was wrong. I’d just finished playing at a CD release party with my group, the Mystics, when things got fuzzy. I had to think hard about which instruments and other gear were mine, how to put them away and where to pack them in my car — things normally done on autopilot. I worried that I might not be able to find my way home.

That turned out not to be a problem, but once home my wife confirmed that something was seriously out of whack.

“Were you kidding?” she asked.

“About what?”

“The CD sales. When I asked you how they were going, you said, ‘Are we selling CDs?’ You guys had been signing them all night and you didn’t remember? How do you think all those people in the crowd got CDs? Did you think you were throwing them out like Frisbees?”

The next morning, we left on vacation. We’d been on the road for about an hour when she mentioned that a friend’s brother-in-law had died the night before.

“What?” I asked with genuine surprise. “Why didn’t anybody tell me?”

She almost ran off the road.

“Are you serious? You don’t remember talking to Judee (the friend) about her brother-in-law dying? You don’t remember giving her a hug and telling her how sorry you were?”

Nada. Zilch. It was as if it never happened.

“This is getting scary,” she said. “You’ve been asking me the same questions over and over this morning and don’t remember the answers. You need to call your doctor.”

No argument.

If I could just remember his name.

We were just out of Baker City, Ore., when the fog lifted. My doctor’s name returned, along with the names of the medications I take and had been struggling to remember. (At least enough of my marbles were left to know that whatever doctor I ended up seeing would want to know about them). But virtually all of the night before was still a blank. Fifteen hours of my life virtually gone.

Halfway to our destination we met our younger daughter, who was returning from her vacation, for lunch. A registered nurse, she said I might have had a transient ischemic attack or TIA, a small stroke.

“If that’s what it was,” she added, “there could be more coming. You really need to get hold of your doctor.”

It was a Sunday (why do these things always happen on weekends?), but I used St. Luke’s online messaging to contact my doctor. His response was prompt, unequivocal. Get to the nearest ER. Right away.

Expecting the usual, long wait, we were surprised when the folks at Mason General Hospital in Shelton, Wash., rushed me from check-in to an exam by the ER doc in less time than it takes to read the patient privacy brochures.

“There are buzz words,” said our other daughter, a paramedic who was with us for the vacation. “When they hear those, they get you right in. Your buzz word was stroke.”

At the hospital equivalent of warp speed, they drew blood, did an EKG and a CT scan and had the results read by a radiologist. (I silently gave thanks that one thing I didn’t forget was to bring my health insurance card.)

After asking lots of questions and seeing the test results, the ER doc rejected what had seemed to be the logical diagnosis.

“I’m not buying the TIA,” he said. “You didn’t have any numbness, no drooping muscles or speech problems, and your test results are normal. I think it was transient global amnesia.”

That sounded even worse.

“It’s pretty rare,” he said. “Including yours, I’ve only seen three cases.”

That figured. Nothing normal ever happens to me.

“The good news is there’s no damage and it isn’t likely to happen again.”

Good news? It was the best possible news.

He added, however, that it would be wise to see a neurologist when we got home to confirm the diagnosis and make sure a stroke wasn’t lurking. I have. He’s ordered another test.

Maybe my luck will hold. Maybe the whole thing was nothing more than a scary wake-up call.

A wake-up call to do the things on the bucket list, to do more for others, to make the most of whatever time is left. If there’s a lesson to be learned from a medical scare, it’s that luck is uncertain and life can change in a heartbeat. Every day matters.

Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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