Woman overcomes total memory loss to graduate from college
By Liz Goodwin
On her first day of community college, 45-year-old Su Meck threw up two times out of sheer terror.
Going back to school as an adult is scary for anyone. But Meck, a homemaker and former aerobics instructor from Gaithersburg, Maryland, had a very special reason to be apprehensive. She suffered total memory loss at the age of 22 when a ceiling fan fell on her head as she was cooking, leaving her in a coma with a brain full of cracks. When she came to, she remembered nothing about her past, and had the mental capacity of a young child. Meck woke up to a life she didn’t remember having, that of a young mother and wife living in Fort Worth, Texas. Family members remember her looking at them with a chilling lack of recognition after the accident.
“It was literally like she had died,” her husband Jim told the Washington Post. “Her personality was gone.
“It was Su 2.0. She had rebooted.”
So even though she had studied at Ohio Wesleyan University, where she met and married her husband, Meck did not remember a single day of her education. As far as she was concerned, she had never set foot inside a classroom. But Meck triumphed–she graduated with her associate’s degree in music with a 3.9 grade point average last Friday.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” she told The Lookout in an interview of going back to school. “I didn’t know how to act or what to do. How I basically got through this whole ordeal is watching other people and mimicking what they do. I wasn’t sure if I was going to really be able to do that in a classroom.”
She asked her three children–two of them college-aged at the time–how to take notes and how students are supposed to act.
“I didn’t understand the whole concept, like do you write down everything the teacher says? How do you know what to write down? It was really, really scary,” she remembers.
Her youngest child, Kassidy, was just starting high school and helped her mom with her remedial math course. Meck couldn’t even multiply numbers–she relied on addition, which she had learned from examining her children’s homework when they were younger. “My daughter was fabulous,” Meck says. “She was a huge help, especially with the math.”
Meck initially kept her condition a secret from her classmates and professors, who she says were very kind and helpful. But she was haunted by the feeling that at any time, she could be “sitting there and not knowing if I was doing it right.” She was baffled when her professors told her to buy blue books for her exams. Scantrons also escaped her: She remembers circling the letters instead of filling them in.
Meck finally told some of her peers and instructors about her condition in her last year at the college. She had never told anyone outside of a small circle of close friends and family before.
There was also a more insidious fear: That she wouldn’t live up to the person she used to be.
“I was an excellent student before … and that was kind of rough because it was like, ‘Is everyone expecting me to be this before person? Because I can’t be that person. I’m not that person.'”
Meck plans to enroll in Smith College in Massachusetts next fall as a transfer student, and eventually get a masters degree in library science. She hopes to work in a music division of a library. She was a talented musician before her accident, and once shortly after the total memory loss she sat down at a piano and played Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” her mom told her. She has never been able to do that since, and struggled to re-learn piano in college.
One downside of her condition being out in the open now is people are very curious about what she was like before the accident, which frustrates Meck.
“You can ask Jim that, you can ask my family that, but you can’t ask me that. Because I don’t know,” she says.
Her children, however, grew up only remembering the post-accident Meck. (Two of her children were very young when the fan fell on her, one was born after the accident.) She learned to be a mother again through “trial and error,” she says, and her children also adapted. Her son became very adept at remembering their parking space, since Meck’s short-term memory was also impaired at first.
“They didn’t know that mom was any different,” she says. “I guess Benjamin [the oldest child] talked about, ‘You’re different from other moms, but not in a bad way.’ All the other moms would sit and drink coffee, but I would sit on the floor and do the puzzles, because I had never done puzzles before … I was just a different mom I think.”
Her husband, however, did remember what she was like before she lost her memory, and Meck says that was hard. “I am definitely not the same person he married,” she says of Jim. “It’s been rough. It couldn’t have not been. It’s not all Disney endings–It’s life, it’s not always perfect.”
Today is their 26th wedding anniversary, but Meck doesn’t remember her wedding day. She says they’re thinking of picking a new day to celebrate, one that she remembers.
(Meck: Sanjay Suchak/Montgomery College)