For most people, a sit-down interview with Matt Lauer live in front of millions of viewers would be unforgettable. But while appearing on TODAY Monday, guest Michelle Philpots forgot Lauer’s name before their talk was even finished.
Philpots, 47, has her memory wiped clean each day — sometimes each minute — by anterograde amnesia, brought on by head injuries she suffered in two vehicle crashes more than 20 years ago. She wakes up every morning believing it is 1994, the last year from which she can conjure up memories.
Thus, for the Englishwoman, John Major is still prime minister, Ace of Base tops the music charts, and “Forrest Gump” is the movie everyone is flocking to see. And while such amnesia has been played to humorous effect in movies like “Groundhog Day” and “50 First Dates,” it can be sad and sometimes devastating for Philpots.
“Right at the beginning for me, it was heartbreaking, knowing that I was different,” she told Lauer while her supportive husband, Ian, sat by her side. “I didn’t want to be different.
“I wanted to be back to the normal me and not this shell of a person. I want my career back. I want to be able to say, ‘I remember when’ again — but knowing [that’s] the life you’ve lost, you can’t do it.”
Philpots’ rare condition is the result of a motorcycle accident in 1985, compounded by a serious car accident five years later. In 1994, she was diagnosed with epilepsy as a result of her head injuries.
Her condition rapidly deteriorated: Not only did Philpots suffer from frequent seizures, she began to become more and more forgetful. She lost her office job when she copied the same document repeatedly during a work shift. Her memory eventually slid to the point where little to nothing stuck past the year 1994.
A 2005 surgery to extract dead and damaged brain cells improved her lot — the seizures largely stopped. But Philpots still faces waking up each day having to fill in the last 16 years of her life.
Fortunately, she has a knight in shining armor in husband Ian. The pair met back in 1985, so she hasn’t forgotten him. But she can’t remember their 1997 wedding day; Ian has to show her their wedding album every morning to show her they are husband and wife.
Philpots has had a long time to learn to cope with her amnesia, and manages to function. She leaves herself Post-it notes on the refrigerator and helpful reminders in her cell phone. Still, she has to use a GPS guidance system to navigate her small town of Spalding in southeastern England, where she's lived all her life. And often, when she gets to a local store, she’s forgotten why she went there.
Drawing a blank
Appearing with both the Philpots on TODAY, psychiatrist Gary Small told Lauer that Michelle’s case is markedly different from most other amnesia in that she retains the day-to-day skills of how to function in life — but without the social memories.
“What’s striking in Michelle’s condition is that she can’t form new memories, yet she can carry out everyday things; she can drive a car, she can have a conversation,” Small, a professor and the director of the UCLA Center on Aging, said. “But she will not remember this [TODAY show] experience tomorrow the way you and I will remember.”
Indeed, when Philpots was shown photos of herself enjoying visits to New York City landmarks — photos taken only the evening before — she was at a loss. “You draw a blank?” Lauer asked Michelle.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
But unusual events can stick, to some extent. Philpots said she is likely to remember at least something about her TODAY appearance by Tuesday. “Because this is a special occasion, I don’t think I’m going to forget,” she said. “I’ll forget when it was, [but] anything that amazes me will stay there.”
Philpots also said she constantly is working to improve her memory — she can remember up to six numbers by punching them into a telephone keypad. “I won’t remember the number itself, but I will remember the pattern,” she told Lauer.
But pastimes as basic as reading a book are largely lost to her. “By the time I’ve started and get to the middle, I’ve forgotten how it started,” she told NBC.
And while her condition has stabilized medically, doctors have told Philpots her current way of living is the best she can hope for. “This is it; it won’t get any better,” she said.
It’s small comfort that an age-old rerun of her favorite British TV drama, “EastEnders,” is as fresh to her as the day it first aired, or that jokes always stay funny because she can’t recall having heard them before. But husband Ian said her malady is trying on their marriage.
“It can be very frustrating for me, but I have to be patient and understand and accept that she struggles to remember,” Philpots told the Mirror newspaper in London. “I get frustrated, but I have to keep calm because I love her. She still remembers when we first met. It’s just the day-to-day things she struggles to recall.”