Video: After losing her memory, mom earns college degree

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    >> this morning on today's good news, one woman's inspiring journey. 23 years ago her memory was erased after a ceiling fan fell on her head. recently she achieved an amazing milestone and she's not done yet. we're going to talk to both her and her husband in just a moment. but first, here's nbc 's norah o'donnell.

    >> reporter: sue is learning to play the drums, not for the first time, but for the second time in her life.

    >> i was a drummer before.

    >> reporter: when sue talks about before, she means before that freak accident 23 years ago. sue was cooking dinner and playing with her 6-month-old son patrick.

    >> she grabbed him underneath the shoulders and picked him up. his back struck a low ceiling fan in our kitchen with enough force to knock it off its hook. the fan fell, struck sue in the temple.

    >> reporter: what sue's husband jim saw next was changed her life forever.

    >> it was out of a horror movie . she collapsed on the floor. lots of blood. called 911. they asked was my wife braet breathing. i said i didn't know.

    >> reporter: doctors at the hospital said there was nothing they could do.

    >> i was told to go get my son, to come back, and to say good-bye.

    >> how did that make you feel?

    >> i was -- i was terrified.

    >> reporter: still, sue was young and physically fit, and she hung on in a coma for a week until she finally woke up.

    >> nothing less than miraculous.

    >> reporter: but doctors soon realized there was something terribly wrong.

    >> all of her ability to have short-term memory was gone.

    >> reporter: in fact, all of her memories erased, a diagnosis called advanced retrograde amnesia. so severe, sue didn't even recognize her own two young boys .

    >> did you recognize them?

    >> i don't -- i don't think so.

    >> reporter: sue had to relearn everything, how to walk, talk, eat, read and write . sue and jim , once college sweethearts, had to fall back in love.

    >> are you in love with a different person than you first were in love with?

    >> oh, yes. no question.

    >> how is she different?

    >> she's -- she's a much kind of person than she was then.

    >> reporter: a changed woman, sue spent the next two decades struggling with the sense of identity.

    >> i was a parent. i was a wife. there was no -- i didn't have any thing by myself.

    >> reporter: so sue went back to school, graduating from montgomery college in may.

    >> susan mack with honors.

    >> nfin fact, you liked it so much you're going to keep going to school.

    >> i was. i was accepted at smith college .

    >> reporter: a remarkable journey for a woman who lost cherished memories, but in turn, has created a new life and a new sense of self. for "today," norah o'donnell, nbc news.

    >> and our success story joins us this morning with her husband. sue mack along with jim . good morning to both of you.

    >> good morning.

    >> so, first of all, with honors? uh-huh. that's the way to roll.

    >> yes.

    >> and in your case, you're the only one who really remembers what happened 23 years ago. so what i'm wondering is, what is it that doctors say actually happened when the ceiling fan hit your wife?

    >> the way they described it was that the blow struck her temple, her brain struck the front of her skull and bounced off the back. in a classic, at that time, traumatic brain injury . sheering of brain tissue . they described it as if you have a bowl full of jello and you take it out of the ridge and you shake it, there's cracks. that's what she had in her head.

    >> remarkably, your son patrick was unscathed.

    >> he was fine.

    >> in your case, you couldn't remember. what was not remembering like?

    >> i think it was fear more than anything. i don't actually remember being in the hospital but if i think back to that time i think it feels like fear and frustration and anger and, you know, all those kind of emotional things. so i guess that was probably -- it was scary.

    >> yeah. very scary. scary, too, for you. you were just 24 years old. two little boys . here your wife doesn't know who you are, doesn't know your voice. this had to be just so devastating for you. so how did you find the way to reach out to her and make a relationship again?

    >> she was the mother of my children. she was the mother of my sons. i couldn't do anything else.

    >> yeah. and did you have to take her out again?

    >> oh, yes.

    >> did you have to buy her flowers and take her to the movies? what did you do?

    >> i was her caretaker and looked at her. i was more of a big brother . you don't kiss your big brother .

    >> no, no. so it took a while. what do you think was the thing that really helped you in the end make peace with what had happened?

    >> probably just this past year, just starting to talk about it again. i went back to school starting in 2007 , and i was active at my school. i was, you know, an officer in ptk, which is phi beta kappa , officer, so that really put me -- like that was my thing. like i could do this by myself.

    >> so life goes on. and what would you say above all one learns from this kind of trauma, this kind of fear, this kind of --

    >> no matter what happens, just never -- never give up. even if you can't see it, even if you can't know how you're probably going to get through it, give it a chance and don't lose hope.

    >> don't lose hope. what about for you, su?

    >> i guess people should be, you know, more looking out for themselves, not in like a selfish way but there's more to being a wife and mother than being just a wife and mother. you have to be your own person, too.

    >> right. you had to go and find yourself.

    >> right. and it was --

    >> here you are emerging.

    >> and it was very confusing to me because everybody was telling me who i was before. and that wasn't who i am now. so it was almost leak it was a different -- i'm a different person. it was confusing.

    >> who you are now is remarkable. soon you're going to be a smith graduate. you must be so proud. i'm so glad to meet both of you. thanks, jim .

    >>> we've got much more coming up in just a moment, but first, this is "today" on nbc .

TODAY contributor
updated 4/2/2013 10:32:34 PM ET 2013-04-03T02:32:34

A freak accident involving a ceiling fan may have taken Su Meck’s memory of everything that happened for the first 22 years of her life, but it did not rob her of her determination.

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Since the accident that left her with amnesia, the 45-year-old from Gaithersburg, Md., has had to relearn how to walk, talk, read, write and drive. But Meck, whose identity was once as a mother and homemaker, carved a place for herself as a college student. She went from having been reduced to the mental capacity of a young child to graduating from Montgomery (Md.) College with honors in May, earning an associate degree.

“It was very confusing to me because everybody was telling me who I was before, and that wasn’t who I am now. It was almost like I’m a different person,’’ Meck told Ann Curry while appearing with her husband on TODAY Monday. “There’s more to being a wife and mother than just being a wife and mother, you have to be your own person, too.”

Her husband, Jim, said that his wife is a much kinder person now, and is thankful for the opportunity to have a new life with a woman who suddenly did not recognize him or their two sons.

“No matter what happens, just never give up,’’ he told Curry. “Even if you can’t see it, even if you can’t know how you’re possibly going to get through it, give it a chance and don’t lose hope.’’

A freak accident
Meck’s ordeal began in February 1988, when she picked up the couple’s then-six-month-old son Patrick and playfully held him in the air. His back struck a low ceiling fan in the kitchen, dislodging it off its moorings and causing it to strike Meck, then 22, in the temple. She handed Patrick to her husband, Jim, and then collapsed on the floor.

“It was out of a horror movie,’’ he said.

Here, Su Meck is pictured with her children. After the accident, Meck was unable to remember the birth of her first two kids.

While Patrick barely had a scratch on him, Meck had suffered a blow that caused advanced retrograde amnesia. Often referred to as Hollywood amnesia because it rarely happens outside the movies, her condition left her completely unable to remember the past. She was in a coma for a week, and doctors told Jim to bring his young sons, Patrick and Benjamin, to the hospital with the end of her life possibly near.

“I was told to go get my sons and to come back and say goodbye because she wouldn’t be there in the morning,’’ he said. “I was terrified.’’

While her recovery was “nothing short of miraculous,’’ according to her husband Meck had reverted to the mental condition of a toddler. Essentially, her life was starting completely over at 22 years old.

“The way they described it was that the blow struck her temple,’’ Jim said. “Her brain struck the front of her skull and then bounced off the back in a classic, at that time, traumatic brain injury. It was shearing brain tissue. They described it as if you have a bowl full of Jell-O you take out of the fridge and you shake it, there [are] cracks. That’s what she had in her head.’’

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The former Sue Miller, a wild child from Philadelphia who dropped the “e’’ in her name and spent much of her free time pounding on the drum kit in her bedroom, now only saw strangers when gazing at friends and loved ones. The man she fell in love with as a freshman at Ohio Wesleyan was a mystery and she had no recollection of the births of her two young boys.

Meck spent two months in the hospital, learning how to perform basic tasks and reading at the level of a child, starting with Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop.’’

Jim and Su Meck discuss the ordeal of her amnesia and her road to recovery.

“I don’t actually remember being in the hospital, but if I think back to that time it feels like fear and frustration and anger and all these kind of emotional things,’’ she said. “It was scary.’’

While she returned to a supportive family, what direction she should take was unclear. Was she a completely new person? Would she learn to love her husband, essentially now a stranger, again?

“I was her caretaker,’’ he said. “I was more a big brother, and you don’t kiss your big brother.’’

The couple eventually had another child, Kassidy, who is now 18 and is the only child whose birth Meck can remember.

Road to recovery
At first, the hardest part was just mentally cataloguing all those strange faces from day to day. For the first few weeks out of the hospital, she was like the main character from the movie “Memento,’’ unable to make new memories. Every morning, she would wake up and have no idea who these people were in her house.

Talking on the telephone was often disorienting and painful, so she mainly communicated in letters written in the penmanship of a small child. It took her years to be able to walk out of shopping center and recall where she parked, and she would put things away while cleaning up at home only to forget where she stashed them. She stared at a photo album her mother put together from her childhood, unable to remember any of it.

Meck found that the antidote to much of the confusion and fear was throwing herself into education. She volunteered at the school library, learning along with her children and finding a way to persevere even though reading was slow-going at first.

“I was a parent, I was a wife,’’ she said. “I didn’t have anything by myself.’’

In 2007, she enrolled at Montgomery College, starting with classes in remedial math and sociology while learning on the fly how to take notes and write papers by asking her children, who were then in college themselves. Her coursework and academic achievements allowed her to slowly make peace with the traumatic injury that changed her life 23 years ago.

“That was my thing,’’ she said. “Like I could do this by myself.’’

She became an officer in the school’s honors society, Phi Beta Kappa, where she eventually rose to the rank of president.

Now, she will pursue a four-year degree at Smith College in Massachusetts and is even learning to play her beloved drums again, pounding away on a kit in the house surrounded by posters of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

The memories of who she once was may be forever locked in a vault, but Meck is now well on her way to creating a lifetime’s worth of new ones to cherish.

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