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Health & wellness

Q & A

Learning about life after brain injury

Jared Leeds

In 1988, when she was 22 years old, a ceiling fan fell on Su Meck’s head. After three weeks in hospitals and rehab facilities, doctors sent her home, saying she’d be back to normal soon. But she wasn’t. The head injury knocked out all her memories to that point — including how to hold a spoon, how to read, and her ability to recognize family members. Not realizing how injured she was, Meck returned to her post as homemaker and mother, and slowly — over the last 25 years — she built a new life, knowledge base, and personality. Now a resident of Northampton, Meck is getting ready to graduate from Smith College and just published a book about her experiences, “I Forgot to Remember: A Memoir of Amnesia” (Simon & Schuster), with help from journalist Daniel de Vise.

Q. Was writing this book helpful in learning what happened to you?

A. I understand so much more now. I think everybody should be required to write their memoir during their lifetime, because you’d be amazed at what you learn.

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Q. What kind of response have you gotten to the book, published a few weeks ago?

A. The number of e-mails I’ve gotten from people who are dealing with this is overwhelming. I think there’s a lot more [traumatic brain injuries] out there than people realize.

Q. It must have been incredibly challenging for the people around you in those early years.

A. I wasn’t actively being a difficult person to live with, but I so was. I forgot things all the time. I asked the same questions over and over again. I got lost occasionally and people would have to drop what they were doing and come find me. I didn’t know that I had a deficit, so anytime it was referred to in that way I got all pissed off. I think it was rough for everybody.

Q. You talk a lot in the book about the help you received from your children — two sons who were 8 months and nearly 2 at the time of the accident, and your daughter, who was born five years later.

A. We’re sort of all four siblings with each other more than anything. We all kind of grew up together.

Q. Siblings, as if you’re all the same age?

A. If you were to ask me how old I feel, I feel early 20s. My life experiences are 20 years, rather than almost 50. The life I know started after the accident. Not right after — it was several years before I have memories of things that happened.

Q. You write that your personality was one of the things profoundly changed by your injury.

A. My parents like to say “We should have hit you on the head a long time ago” My dad says I’m a lot nicer now. I was incredibly stubborn, I was very “Don’t tell me what to do.”

Q. But the accident turned you — at least at first — into a very different person.

A. I was passive. I did everything [my husband, Jim] said to do without any question. Let’s say I’m sitting in the park and the moms are there with their magazines and I can’t really read but I’m sitting there with my magazine. The person next to me would turn the page, so I would turn the page — literally mimicking exactly what people around me did and said.

Q. Seven years ago, you decided to go to community college, having no memory of your previous education, or even of basic skills like multiplication. Now, as you’re getting ready to graduate from Smith, have you caught up?

A. I don’t think I’ll ever catch up. I’m not a stellar student by any stretch. I struggle a lot here. I love history and I love reading historical fiction and stuff now, but I don’t have the background of history and science and math and things that these girls all have.

Q. Like college seniors everywhere, you must be looking beyond graduation and wondering what’s next.

A. I always thought that I would graduate and go to library school and be a librarian. [But] I don’t want to go to library school right now. I’ve had enough of school. I don’t think that’s all that unusual.

Q. Have you made close friends at Smith even though you’re the age of many of their parents?

A. I feel more comfortable with the 20-year-olds than I do the 40- and 50-year-olds sometimes. I feel like I fit better with them than I do people who are my real age.

Q. You’re a drummer and music major — do you expect to keep up your music after you graduate?

A. Librarian by day, rock star by night, and author in there somewhere. I’ve sort of been bitten by the [writing] bug.

Q. What advice do you have for people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries and the family members who care for them?

A. It’s a lifetime struggle. I’m sad for people who think they’re going to get their old self back in a matter of years. People in the medical community who tell spouses or families that “You just have to give it time and they’ll be back to the way they were before” — no. But that’s not necessarily going to happen. This is 25 years that I’ve been at this.

Q. You seem so good-natured, but do you have a sense of loss — are you ever upset about what you missed out on by forgetting so much of your past?

A. My dad always said if you lose your sense of humor you die. I’ve tried to keep a sense of humor about it, because I think that some of it is funny — some of it is just goofy funny. I didn’t know that cat’s tails had bones until three years ago. It’s embarrassing but it’s also very funny. I have to keep things a little bit in perspective, because this is what happened. This is my life. I can’t go back and change what happened.

Interview was edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at karen@karenweintraub.com. Follow her on Twitter @kweintraub.
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