A Missed Dinner Party: how amnesia changed our plans

(Although I don’t normally say who I’m writing about in these posts, in this instance my mom gave me full permission!)

One evening, Dinner Table Doctor never made it to the dinner table, but we still had one of our more interesting medical discussions. A few years ago DTD and I were just about to head to a dinner party when we got a call from my dad who calmly said “I think your mother is having a stroke.” We dropped everything and ran across the street, which is conveniently where they live. Mom was sitting in a chair with a very serene look on her face and her hands folded in her lap. A former nurse, she kept repeating “I must have had a TIA” which stands for transient ischemic attack and is similar to a stroke and sometimes called a mini-stroke, but that’s a topic for another post.

DTD asked mom a series of questions and it became clear that she knew us and knew who she was, but she lost a few years in her memory. She also wasn’t sure what she was doing five minutes ago, what town we lived in and what year it was, and she kept repeating herself over and over. Within a few minutes DTD declared she had TGA, or transient global amnesia, but insisted that we take her to the emergency room to be absolutley certain she wasn’t having a stroke, because quick treatment of a stroke could minimize long-term effects and even prevent death. Obviously he wasn’t about to take the chance of a missed diagnosis when it came to his mother-in-law, and anytime someone can’t remember what they said 30 seconds ago, it’s a good idea to see a doctor ASAP.

Here is how the conversation went on the way to the hospital:

Mom: Where are we going?

Dad: To the hospital

Mom: Why is that?

Dad: You need to see a doctor.

Mom: Why am I dressed like this?

Dad: you were painting.

Mom: I must have had a TIA.

Mom: Where are we going? and the entire conversation repeated itself again, and again, and again!

Mom and dad were in the back seat and DTD and I were up front. Dad was extremely patient and answered mom’s repetitive questions in a sweet, calm and loving tone every single time. It was truly impressive. After about 100 repeats, I snapped and shouted “Mom! Don’t worry about it! Just be quiet for a bit! Everything is fine!” My husband turned to me with a look of pure horror and told me he saw our future together and it wasn’t pretty, for him anyway.

The hospital did all the tests for a stroke, but came to the same diagnosis as DTD’s. Due to all the activity and attention, mom wasn’t repeating herself unless there was a lull in the conversation. Each time the same doctor or nurse would walk into the room, my mom acted like she was meeting them for the first time. She was forming no new memories and had also lost some. My brother who arrived an hour or so after we did, was completely fascinated and kept asking her questions from her life and our past like it was a quiz show.

Can you name your grandkids? “Yes” (She rattled off all eight names.)

Can you name your dogs? “Charlie, Muffin…”

AND? “What do you mean AND? How many dogs do I have? Am I some kind of crazy dog lady?” (The correct answers are three chihuahuas and yes)

This continued until the next medical professional walked in to interrupt the interview.

An estimated 5-10 people in 100,000 per year are diagnosed with TGA when they suddenly lose the ability to form new memories. They appear disoriented and ask repetitive questions and typically have retrograde amnesia as well, where they lose the ability to recall some general or personal information. Their cognitive functions are normal, so they could complete their normal tasks, like tying their shoes or even driving. The amnesia resolves itself within 24 hours, when their memories return, except for what happened during the time period of the TGA episode.

My mom’s memories began to return within 12 hours. She could hardly believe us when we told her how she ended up in the hospital, and was concerned that the doctors didn’t know why it happened to her. There is no definitive known cause for TGA. Usually the episodes occur in patients over 50 years old and rarely do they occur more than one time. As DTD explains it, it can happen to any of us at any time. “You know how sometimes you hear about a guy who disappears and ends up a few states over and doesn’t know how he got there? That’s usually TGA.”

This is a terrifying thought for me. My mom was lucky in that my dad was with her and recognized something amiss and got help immediately. With my luck, DTD would be out of town for the weekend and find me 24 hours later wandering through the neighborhood in my underwear. Also, I wonder if it has ever happened to me when my husband and kids were all home with me but didn’t even notice. Maybe I made dinner and did the dishes and we sat down to watch a movie and then went to bed. The whole time I might have been thinking I was still in my 40’s and oblivious to the existence of Facebook or Reddit.

In any case, I’m happy to say mom is fine and we were able to reschedule that dinner. Now you know that if you end up in an unexpected place and can’t remember how you got there, it could be TGA. Or you could be a heavy drinker or on drugs, but I guess you’ll know the difference if the time ever comes.

I’ve included a link to one of my favorite podcasts, Radiolab. You can get a good sense of how strange TGA is, because in this particular episode a woman had the wherewithal to record her mother’s experience.


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