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Mom earns college degree 23 years after memory loss

In 1988, a freak accident left Su Meck with amnesia, and she was unable to remember the past or even recognize her husband and sons. Despite the injury, Meck, now 45, went back to college, graduated with honors, and says the experience has helped her regain her identity.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.

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.

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.’’

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.’’

“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.