Real Life: "I Lost My Memory, Now All I Have are Photos!"

Real Life: "I Lost My Memory, Now All I Have are Photos!"

19 Mar 2014

A brain-zapping illness made Liz Oldershaw forget how to read, write and even speak. Now she's using family snaps to piece her life back together

As a bright and bubbly young woman who’d just finished uni, Liz Oldershaw had everything to look forward to. But soon after graduating, the pretty 24-year-old could no longer read or write, struck down by a devastating condition that wiped out precious memories.

Liz had just returned from a dream Caribbean holiday when, out of the blue, she suffered a fit. She says: “I was lying on the floor at home and began having a seizure. That’s the last thing I remember. It’s only thanks to reading my mum’s diary that I learnt about what had happened.” 

With no history of epilepsy, Liz was rushed to hospital, where medics put her into a coma to reduce the risk of brain damage. Her mum Cathy, also a doctor, couldn’t understand why she’d become so poorly, and hospital staff were equally baffled. It wasn’t until blood tests were examined at a top university hospital that they found out what was wrong. Liz had been struck down by encephalitis, which causes swelling inside the skull. Usually linked to the herpes simplex virus, responsible for cold sores and chicken pox, the potentially deadly condition can lead to brain damage and even death.

Family’s relief turns to fear
When Liz woke up three months later, her family was overjoyed, until Cathy made a shocking discovery – her daughter had regressed into a little girl. Scarily, Liz had forgotten huge chunks of her life, including childhood birthday parties and family trips to Egypt and Spain. While she could still recognise close relatives, her mind had become like a jigsaw with some of the pieces missing. 

Cathy, 52, says: “I tested Liz’s memory by asking her if she liked bananas, which I know she hates. When she said she liked them my stomach sank – I knew then that her memory had been affected. When she woke up from the sedation Liz had regressed back to being like a small child, so we had to teach her everything all over again.”

Personality change
While Liz was in a coma, Cathy had kept a diary detailing her daughter’s time in hospital. “When they said they wanted to sedate her I knew it was something serious, and all I could think of was how much I wanted her to be better again,” she recalls. “I kept a diary of everything that went on as it was good for me to write it down and put my feelings on paper.” 

Once Liz woke up, Cathy hoped that letting her read the journal would help her understand what had happened. Then she had another idea. Working with Liz’s sister Sarah, she delved into family photo albums, compiling scrapbooks of the highlights of her life. Friends and relatives also rallied around to find mementoes that might jog her memory once she was feeling better.

“I was so worried when she first fell ill,” Cathy says. “She just changed and became a whole other person. I decided to create the scrapbooks so Liz would have something to go through to remember the things she’d forgotten. I’m glad she has no memory of being ill, though – it was such a traumatic time I wouldn’t want her to remember it.” 

Liz’s reaction to the albums was dramatic. “When I look through the scrapbooks from Mum and the rest of the family I’m overwhelmed with emotion,” she says. “I just started crying the first time 

I looked through them – I couldn’t believe I’d been through all this and had no recollection of it at all.

“My mum and family must have been terrified when I was ill and when I looked at the albums she’d made I couldn’t believe that I’d done so many things that I had no memory of. I’m now unsure whether the memories I have are my own or just from photographs and other people’s accounts, but I’m so thankful to my mum for going to so much trouble.”

Gradually, Liz relearned skills she’d first grasped as a toddler, including walking and speaking. Cathy says: “When Liz was trying to string a sentence together she would just forget a word as she was talking. She still does it now. Her determination to learn to walk again was incredible and she was back on her feet quickly, but we all knew it would be a long road to recovery.”

A devastating disease
Despite her ordeal, Liz is determined to make sure she lives life to the full so she’ll have new experiences to remember once she’s older. She can’t work due to relapses and she’s struggled to regain the confidence she had before falling ill, but thanks to snaps of momentous times such as her first day at school, she’s piecing her life back together, even helping an organisation that supports people with the illness.

“I do a lot of voluntary work with the Encephalitis Society and it has helped me in so many ways,” she says. “There are plenty of other young people who have been in similar situations to mine and it has such a devastating effect. People assume that memory loss comes with age, but this disease takes memories from young people before they’ve even done much to remember.” 

As she focuses on the future, Liz is philosophical about what she’s been through. “I studied psychology at university and learned about the human mind, so it’s ironic that this happened to me. I’m fascinated by the way this disease works, how it affects your behaviour and your memory in such an extreme way. You could look at all the things that have changed in a negative way, but I just prefer to look on the bright side and see what I can do to help.  I’m not going to let this determine who I am.”