When Georgia Lee had a headache in 2018, she took some painkillers and thought little of it. But when it was still causing her problems two weeks later, her family and boyfriend started to worry. In fact, doctors asked her how old she was. “Seventeen,” she replied. But she was actually 22. So where had those five lost years gone?
Now Lee, who is from the United Kingdom, had had a bright future ahead of her. For you see, she’d graduated from high school and got a degree after studying hard at university. Furthermore, she had a caring boyfriend and was surrounded by family who loved and supported her.
However, Lee got a headache one day in 2018. At first she didn’t think much of it, and took painkillers to try and relieve the discomfort. But none of the drugs she took seemed to have an effect. Two weeks later, the headache was still there and showed no signs of abating.
“I had a constant headache for about two weeks in one spot of my forehead,” Lee described to British news outlet Radio 1 Newsbeat in February 2020. “No [painkilling] tablets were working.” Soon, though, something changed in her, and friends and relatives started to grow concerned about the 22-year-old.
Lee continued, “One day, I messaged my boyfriend making absolutely no sense whatsoever.” It was enough for her father to go check on her that same day. And when he saw her, he immediately knew something wasn’t right. Moreover, whatever the problem was, it concerned him enough to bring it to the attention of medics.
So once at hospital, doctors initially believed the symptoms Lee showed were being caused by meningitis. But when she had a seizure, they believed something else was contributing to her prodromes and worrying behavior. Furthermore, when they asked her a simple question, she got the answer very wrong.
That’s right, because medical staff asked Lee how old she was. And they were stunned when she told them she was 17. She was, of course, 22, but she had suddenly lost five years of her memory. Indeed, all memories of everything that had happened to her in those years, from her studies to learning to drive, were gone.
But Lee had other symptoms, too. Her illness robbed her of both her sense of smell and taste. Shockingly, it was an effect that would continue into the long term. What’s more, her ailment was very similar to Claire Rutherford’s in 2004. The school nurse, also from the United Kingdom, started to get sick in May that year.
As Rutherford described to the Daily Mail newspaper in 2006, “I developed flu-like symptoms: I was vomiting, had a high temperature and general aches and pains.” However, her husband noticed a change in her behavior, and, as with Lee, she was admitted to a local hospital.
Soon after, Rutherford was transferred to another hospital for more specialist assessment. She underwent tests and scans on her brain to find out what might be causing her behavioral changes. What they found was that her brain had swollen and severely impaired her memory, just like Lee 14 years later.
In fact, Rutherford later recalled her recovery in hospital. She told the Daily Mail, “As my family gathered around my bed, apparently my first reaction was one of confusion and blank incomprehension. Quite simply, I didn’t know who they were.” Indeed, the damage the swelling had caused to her brain had affected her ability to identify faces.
Then, after nearly three months in hospital, Rutherford was sent home. However, it wasn’t a place she recognized at all. “As I slowly walked up the path, I had no idea where I was or what I was doing there,” she explained. Although her husband did his best to trigger her memory, it was to no avail.
“During my 11-week stay in hospital, my husband, Ed, had talked a great deal about our life in this lovely five-bedroom house,” Rutherford told the Daily Mail. “Yet, as he guided me in through the front door, the place was as meaningless to me as any other property we had passed on our way.” That, however, wasn’t the worst of it.
As Rutherford further recalled, “I looked at the faces of my children whose encouraging expressions urged me to remember the family home. But I drew a blank.” Indeed, the nurse struggled to recognize her own kids, Struan, Helen, Leo and Georgia aged from nine to 16 at the time. What’s more, the situation didn’t improve in the next two years.
“Almost overnight my life was turned upside down,” Rutherford explained to the Daily Mail. “One moment I was busy raising four children and working as a school nurse. The next I could barely remember my own name. Even… after more than two years of constant treatment and therapy, I [fought] to maintain an independence which [had] been so sorely compromised by having almost no recollection of my past life.”
It was a similar experience for Lee more than a decade later. You see, one of her big, early challenges was to re-learn everything about her friends as well as her boyfriend. As she explained to Radio 1 Newsbeat, “I had to get to know him all over again, same as all my university friends.”
Lee continued, “[My boyfriend] was a bit nervous to begin with. Then he took it bit by bit. He’d tell me about our past and show me pictures of everything.” And yet, despite his efforts, much of her memory remains blank, with no recollection at all of her education beyond high school.
Furthermore, not only did the two women struggle to recognize the people closest to them, but they also had to relearn how to do the most basic of tasks. For instance, Lee struggled to cope with using public transport and meeting friends. While Rutherford couldn’t remember how to boil an egg.
“When I first arrived home I just couldn’t find my way around,” Rutherford explained to the Daily Mail. “I edged suspiciously around what I was told was our fairly new kitchen – a kitchen I had chosen. Yet as I ran my hands over the white surfaces I felt nothing.” So you see, it was a disorienting experience for the mom of four.
However, Rutherford was determined to overcome it. She continued, “Though I was overwhelmed, I knew that if this really was my home I didn’t want to be a stranger in it and had to somehow make it familiar to me.” So she devised a way to try and re-familiarize herself with her surroundings.
“If I so much as wanted to make a cup of tea I had to search high and low for the tea bags,” Rutherford told the Daily Mail. “[So] I began making furious notes about the simplest things, such as how to boil an egg.” However, memory loss only affected certain parts of the women’s lives.
As previously mentioned, Lee believed she was 17, and so lost five years of her life. Rutherford, too, retained much of her long term memory, like her childhood and details of her journey to school when she was young. So what was it that caused the two women to lose chunks of their lives?
Well, when medics saw Lee have a fit, they knew what she was suffering from. Doctors determined that she had encephalitis, a relatively rare, non-contagious virus that attacks the brain. And it’s typically contracted by the very young or very old. However, for anyone who gets it without receiving immediate attention, it can prove deadly.
It was a similar story for Rutherford. She recalled, “My neurologist told my anxious family that I had contracted viral encephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain. As a result the temporal lobe — the part of the brain which governs memory — was damaged.” However, the root of the virus can be more innocuous.
You see, among the triggers of encephalitis is the mutation that causes cold sores, the herpes simplex virus. Though that virus is common, it can often lie dormant. And in some cases, when the virus wakes up, it can work its way into the brain where it causes some serious problems.
Now, early signs of encephalitis include similar symptoms to the flu, as Rutherford experienced. Other signals include running a high temperature, or a headache, as Lee had in 2018. Then, over a matter of weeks, days, or sometimes hours, more serious symptoms occur such as feeling confused or disoriented, out-of-character behavior, seizures, impaired speech, and losing consciousness.
Once the encephalitis has worked its way into the brain, it starts to proliferate. The body’s natural response is then to kickstart its immune system. As a result the brain starts to enlarge. And with the virus fighting against the immune system, it creates the problems that Lee and Rutherford encountered.
As Rutherford described to the Daily Mail, “I was in intensive care for five days and doctors gave me two weeks of antiviral medication to try to stop the virus from spreading.” However, as the mom-of-four showed signs of improvement, the lasting effects of the encephalitis started to become more apparent.
Rutherford continued, “As I came round after several days, it became clear that though the virus had been treated, it had damaged my brain and caused memory problems, including a condition called prosopagnosia — the inability to recognise faces.” The impairment to her temporal lobe, it was feared, would be permanent.
Indeed, two years after her illness, Rutherford showed no signs of recovering from her memory loss. And, since her husband was a doctor anyway, his suspicion was that rehabilitation would be a better course of action than seeking a cure. “In other words,” said the one-time nurse, “I had to relearn everything from scratch.”
“It was embarrassing and frustrating,” Rutherford further recalled. “Because even the simplest instructions were difficult to follow unless I wrote them down.” However, having her family around to support her was no doubt some consolation. She told the Daily Mail, “Apparently I was always happy to see Ed and the children even if I didn’t always know who they were.”
But even then, Rutherford’s family’s support could sometimes be overbearing. As she explained, “The family tried to cushion me by trying to do everything for me, but it just felt like I was being shut out.” For all appearances, then, the ex-nurse was fighting to reclaim her independence as well as her memory.
“They had to forcibly hold back while I tried to fathom how to use the dishwasher,” Rutherford told the Daily Mail. “But once I had re-learnt a ‘skill’, I could usually remember to do it because it was routine. But memory can be random and at times I’d simply forget.” Indeed, once she had re-learned something, it didn’t necessarily stick.
As Rutherford explained, “I have a profound emotional connection with my husband and children when I am with them. I have feelings of love and affection when we are together. But jarring with that is the initial moment when I see them, and purely on their visual appearance, I don’t recognise them.”
To help with her rehabilitation, Rutherford saw a clinical psychologist for a year after her illness. And, as she explained, “She showed me how to identify people not only through their physical appearance but also by their mannerisms, colouring and, of course, their environment. I always associate [my husband] with a shark’s tooth necklace he wears – it gives me a clue if I struggle to recognise him.”
Meanwhile, Lee’s recovery includes re-learning how to utilize public transport and calling on friends. She explained to Radio 1 Newsbeat, “Normal things like getting on a bus on my own, going into the shops or going over to somebody’s house are big steps for me now.” She also had to retake her driving test since that part of her memory was gone.
Furthermore, nearly two years on, Lee still has an impaired sense of taste and zero sense of smell. “I have no sense of smell at all,” she explained. “I can taste really spicy and sweet food, but that’s about it.” In fact, she will slather food in ketchup or hot sauce just for something to taste.
Moreover, Lee is concerned how her illness will affect her future at such a pivotal time in her life. For instance, trying to find a job with no recollection of university is something she finds incredibly demanding. She said, “If I don’t really have anything to say to them about my sixth form or my degree, then what can I offer them for the job?”
In turn, Lee felt left behind among her peers and struggled to connect with her old friends. You see, their lives continued while Lee was piecing hers back together. She said, “A lot of my friends have already got their dream jobs, already got houses with their partners, all of that.”
As she continued to explain to Newsbeat, “I just feel like it’s going to be a very long time until I can do that and move on and gain the confidence in myself.” Nevertheless, the young woman tries to stay positive as she gets her life back on track. “I do wish I remembered my university. But I always think I am lucky that it’s only five years and not my whole life that’s gone.”