We live our lives fast-paced, almost unaware – or perhaps repressing with all our might – that our lives could change in an instant, that we are fragile and volatile, and that we can lose ourselves, our lives, our loved ones, in an instant. Most of the time, it works. Until something jolts us into action. What if, in a second, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time – your whole existence was turned upside down?
That was the case for Gary Newman and his family. Gary lived a simple life; married to Christine since 1985, he is a father of three children and a grandfather to six grandchildren, he worked as an independent builder and contractor, and lived a serene life in the rural town of Hereford, England, near the border of Wales. Life was peaceful and his marriage was loving; Gary, a devoted and caring husband, father, and grandfather, spent most of his time with his family. He had walked his daughters down the aisle; he would play with his grandchildren every day. A true family man. One day in 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, Gary, 59, suffered a seizure and was rushed to the hospital. Within four days, he had lost all his memory.
His children and wife were foreign to him. He could not remember who he was. The cause of his ailment remained a complete mystery: the doctors recognized an infection in the brain, but had no idea how he could have possibly contracted the infection. There were no warning signs, no symptoms. The Newman family, and Gary, continue to live in darkness; until they found a way to shine a light over their situation. The Newman family’s journey is a moving testimony to the love of a family, and the strength and hope it can provide even in the darkest of times.
An anniversary forgotten
In 2015, Christine Newman was meant to be celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary to the love of her life, Gary. They met through mutual friends in back in 1983, married in 1985, and shared a loving marriage that produced three children and six grandchildren. She thought they might have a party for the occasion in their home in Hereford, England. On the date, she was sitting on the couch with Gary. “I’m your wife,” she said to him on their anniversary. “Don’t touch me,” he answered. “I don’t know who you are.”
Two years later, Christine and Gary still sit on the couch daily. He doesn’t flinch away as often, but he shows no signs of recollection as to who exactly Christine is, or, for that matter, who he is. In a freak incident, his long-term memory was stolen from him, and since then, this is the routine in the Newman household. “I’m your wife,” Christin says to Gary every day. He stares at her blankly. “His body is there,” she says, somber. “But he is not inside.”
Just a bike ride
It all started back in early 2015, when freelance builder and doting family man, Gary Newman, was heading home from his daily bike ride in the afternoon. The breeze was warm and easy, but a swarm of gnats surrounded him suddenly. He rode through the cloud, swatting them away. In a town as rural as Hereford, gnats are nothing rare. Gary continued homeward, excited to meet his grandchildren later on that day. He’d later recall feeling a strange itch.
Just like a flu
Gary came home, as usual. He began to feel strange, though. Flu-like symptoms: achy muscles, a headache and dizziness, and fatigue suddenly befell him. He thought he had heard something of a flu going round town. He told his wife, Christine, he wasn’t feeling well. “He said, I feel unwell,’”, Christine recalls, “and he was so tired, so he took a paracetamol and off to bed he went.” This was late afternoon, Christine said. What happened an hour later would forever change their lives.
A sudden emergency
Christine came upstairs to check on Gary to make sure he was alright. Terrifyingly, she found him having a seizure. She immediately called 999 emergency services, who arrived in record time and immediately evacuated Gary to the local hospital, where he was given treatment; but his original ailment remained a mystery. During his first day at the hospital, he was in pain, his wife Christine says, but his memory was clear. On the morning of their second day, though, everything changed.
Thirty years erased in a day
Gary woke up in the ICU with obscure memories that were slipping away from him with alarming speed. “It was horrible to watch him deteriorate like that,” his wife Christine says. By the end of the day, Gary had no recollection of whom he was or anything else. He did not recognize his wife or children, and had no idea where he was, or why. Gary was sedated to keep him calm as frantic attempts were made in order to find out the cause of his odd symptoms.
A rare disease
On the fourth day of their stay in the hospital, with Gary’s memory still completely blank, the doctor performed a lumbar puncture, a procedure in which cerebrospinal fluid is extracted from the patient. It was only then they found out he had contracted a rare brain condition called Encephalitis, which causes swelling of the brain. This was the cause of Gary’s memory loss, so much was clear, but the reason as to how he had contracted the disease remained a mystery.
The return to a foreign home
Gary spent three weeks in the hospital, where doctors treated the infection in his brain successfully. Attempts to restore his memory failed completely, however, and eventually, Gary was discharged from the hospital without one. “He was simply a blank slate,” wife Christine says. “I had to teach him how to do absolutely everything again; how to shower, how to make toast, how to brush his teeth.” Christine devoted all her time to caring for Gary and repeatedly tried to remind him of daily tasks and of his past.
A different man
Gary remembered nothing, however, and despite the fact Christine became his full time caretaker, he showed aggression in his behavior; “out of fear, I think,” his daughter, Nina, said in an interview, “but he’d do things like push our hands away or scream, ‘I don’t know who you are!’” Christine was resolute in her decision to help her husband; she began putting up pictures of family members all over the house, and dug out photo albums from the family storage — anything she could get her hands on.
I say my name
Christine says she thought the memory loss would get better with time. Doctors seemed to think so, too. The infection was gone from his brain, and the cause for it was still unclear. “I never realized his memory loss would be so bad. I always just thought he would get better – but two years later, he still doesn’t really know me,” Christine says. “I tell him my name every day, and tell him I’m his wife – but he just looks at me, not understanding.”
Christine spends her time showing Gary photos of the family and reminding him the names of their children and grandchildren. He studies them carefully, and has a diary he keeps where he notes names, dates, daily actions — anything that can help him recall parts of his previous life. Gary is on edge and frustrated, mostly, Christine says. “He’ll say, ‘I know something is wrong with me. I have to get better.’ He’ll write it in his journal.”
Not the only one
As the family tries to cope with the ruins of Gary’s disease towards recuperation, they looked for cases of families affected by memory loss; and there are many. In 2011, another British man, Jake Korving, suffered complete memory loss following a bike crash. He lost all memory up to the crash, including ones of his beloved wife, Charlie, and their wedding day; now, six years later, Jake is making steady progress towards gathering his memory back. “We even got married again,” Charlie Korving says, “He remembers, little by little.”
There have been other noted cases of individuals experiencing complete memory loss. It’s especially common to lose memory following surgeries that require anesthesia, but the loss is usually short-term. Other causes for memory loss are dementia and other brain injuries, those that affect the limbic system in the brain; prolonged alcohol and drug use have also been linked to short and long term memory loss. Most of these cause gradual or partial memory loss; but Gary’s tragedy, and the violent form in which he lost his memory, is extremely rare.
Encephalitis, the disease Gary contracted that led to his sudden, all-consuming memory loss, is rare on its own; it is an infection of the brain that has a quick onset, and usually results from a bacterial or a viral infection, usually meningitis. But Gary’s doctors had ruled that out. He suffered from no previous condition, no forewarning syndromes, no underlying causes, and no co-morbid diseases.
Four days into nothingness
There are various kinds of memory loss; partial, sensory, short-term or long-term. Even though they all affect the same part of the brain, they’re all extremely different. There’s plenty of documentation regarding how slow memory loss, such as the one caused by dementia, affects the individual and his or her surroundings. But a blow as sudden as Gary’s — “four days into nothingness”, Christine calls it — is so rare, that counseling was difficult to find, as well.
Still, certain aspects of memory loss, and especially how it affects the family of the individual impacted, are common to all kinds of it. Amanda King, Executive Director at Clarity Pointe Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Florida, says the majority of difficulties befalls the caregivers. Caregivers tend to exhaust themselves trying to make the individual’s life easier, at the cost of their own health. They work so hard to make life more comfortable for the individual affected — that they often put aside their own needs and lives.
A ripple effect
“As a result of their daily devotion to a loved one, primary caregivers can experience a poorer quality of life for themselves. Specifically, caregivers experience high rates of physical illness, social isolation, emotional distress and financial hardship compared to non-caregivers in the population,” says King. “It’s very important for close friends and loved ones to aid the main caregiver, give to them in a certain way, make sure they’re not drowning and disappearing in the day-to-day process of caring. It’s such a ripple effect. It hurts everyone.”
The main caregiver
Indeed, the opinion seems relevant to the Newmans. Christine now spends all of her time doting on her husband; from teaching him basic life skills day in and day out, to sitting with him for hours on end on the sofa, showing him photos, repeating the names of their children and grandchildren and friends. She tucks him in, feeds him, reminds him over and over who he is. And all of this, alone. “I can’t even hold Gary’s hand anymore – he won’t let me touch him.”
In sickness and health
“Though it gets very lonely for me, I’d never consider putting him into care,” Christine says. “I married him because I loved him, in sickness and in health, and I couldn’t do it to him – if it had happened to me he’d have done the same and looked after me.” Before the accident, Gary and Christine shared an incredibly loving marriage. “He loved spending times with [his grandchildren],” says Gary and Christine’s daughter, Nina. “My mom, too. They still held hands and kissed. They were all loved up.”
Love at first sight
It was love at first sight for the couple, who met on after friends decided they’re a match and set them up on a date. They haven’t left each other’s sights since. Gary was an amazing father, doting over his family constantly — “especially the little girls”, Christine smiles. Christine recalls the moving weddings of her daughters, Sarah and Nina. “He walked them down the aisle and was so proud,” she says. “And he was an even more doting grandfather than he was a dad. He loved his grandkids so much.”
My father, there and missing
Daughter Nina was especially close to Gary. “I was always a bit of a daddy’s girl,” she says. The disaster that struck the family caused her immense emotional damage. “It was my kids, mostly,” Nina says, “Because they had this really close and loving grandfather who loved them and played with them. He used to take them everywhere and roughhouse with them and all of a sudden, he’s gone. But he’s still there. That’s hard to explain to a kid,” Nina says. “It’s hard to explain it to myself.”
Nina’s Facebook page is filled with calls for prayers and thoughts for her father’s recuperation. For a long time, she had no idea how to deal with the situation. “I went into depression, a bit,” she said. “The hardest thing was to deal with his change of character. He’s cranky. He won’t let anyone touch him. He knows something is wrong with him, but not what. And thinking of what it must feel like for him is terrible.”
Nina set up a GoFundMe page to aid in her father’s betterment. “Hello and thank you for taking the time to visit this go fund me page I have set up for my dad and mum,” she writes on the source funding page’s introduction. “Unfortunately as dad becomes ill he is unable to work and neither is my mum as she cares for him and it’s a daily struggle.” The call for help is indeed financial, as the burden of caring falls on Christine.
Could it have been different?
Nina, however, is not only calling for financial aid. She suspects her father’s fate could and can be different if doctors in the hospital acted faster, or if they lived in a bigger city and not a rural town like Hereford. She is also, therefore, raising funds for her father to be able to be transported so he can see a neurological specialist in a large hospital, so the family can be better equipped to deal with the disease – and for hopes of a cure.
We just don’t have much
Nina is convinced that, had the Newmans lived in a more urban setting, the memory loss could have been prevented. “It makes no sense to me that it took them four days to do a spinal tap,” she says. More determined than irate, she writes on her GoFundMe page: “It’s very difficult to accept, it is, but we just don’t have much in the way of funding for neurological problems. My father needs to see a specialist.”
There was another major reason for Nina’s distrust in the local health system. They failed to recognize the mysterious disease that befell her father. Only later would they recall, scrape details together: the bike ride earlier that day, the itching, the rural environment. Gary contracted the disease after he was bitten by a Blandford fly on that crucial bike ride. Branford flies are common in rural northern England. Encephalitis is not. “A fly,” Christine says, amazed. “An hour earlier, an hour later, and everything would have been different.”
Christine says she sometimes feels as though she is grieving over her husband. “Not always,” she says. “But, looking back over all our memories is heart-breaking for me – remembering what we did together and all the happy memories we had, and not knowing if Gary will ever remember it or if we’ll be able to make new memories. If he’ll remember our daughters, our grandbabies. All the things we did together.” But she is far from losing hope.
There’s hope in the air
No one in the Newman family has any plans on giving up. “There are always new researches coming up,” says daughter Nina. “I try to pay attention and I really want to bring my dad to a place where he can blossom so he can make new memories. He’s frustrated too, you know, not just us,” she tears up. “In my heart, I know there’s some hope. Somewhere. He’s my dad. I wouldn’t give up on him.”
A loving family
Christine shares her daughter’s views, and more. “Whatever happens, we’re in it together,” she says. “We’re a family. We’ve had all these beautiful years together. All these beautiful memories, and we have all these beautiful reminders.” When asked about her hopes for the future, she tears up, as well, “I want him to get better, of course, but just to be in our family, in our home,” she says. “I’m one of the oldies, the ones who believe a good family’s love can fix anything.”