Gilbert man struggles to remember his life - East Valley Tribune: News

Gilbert man struggles to remember his life

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Posted: Sunday, August 16, 2009 12:43 pm | Updated: 12:31 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

One day, the memories came back to Scott Bolzan. There were 10 of them. Maybe 12. He can’t be sure. They were all from his childhood. Street names in Calumet City, Ill., where he grew up. The stairs to his parents’ apartment. There were people, too. Scott could see them. It was strange, though. None of them had faces. It’s been that way since Dec. 17, 2008. That’s the day Scott Bolzan forgot his life.

One day, the memories came back to Scott Bolzan.

There were 10 of them. Maybe 12. He can’t be sure.

They were all from his childhood. Street names in Calumet City, Ill., where he grew up. The stairs to his parents’ apartment.

There were people, too. Scott could see them. It was strange, though. None of them had faces.

“I just racked my brain trying to remember, but nothing seemed to help,” Scott said.

It’s been that way since Dec. 17, 2008. That’s the day Scott Bolzan forgot his life.

As he did nearly every weekday, Scott, then 46, arrived at his Tempe office at about 6 a.m. He had been an athlete the early part of his life, first at Northern Illinois University, then as an offensive lineman with the New England Patriots and Cleveland Browns and the Memphis Showboats of the USFL.

His pro career lasted only two years, but unlike many athletes he moved on gracefully. He started a charter jet business in Scottsdale and nursed it to prosperity before selling it in 2008 and becoming the founder and CEO of a professional business aircraft management company.

He stopped in the bathroom before getting his usual cup of coffee. The last thing he remembers is slipping on an oily patch on the floor and his feet flying above his head. When he woke up at Scottsdale Healthcare with five staples in the back of his head, a pretty blond woman embraced him.

He had no idea it was Joan, his wife of 24 years.

“I can remember thinking she’s dressed different than everybody else who works at the hospital and nobody else seems to be concerned except this person here,” Scott said. “So I figured she knew me.”

The medical definition is profound retrograde autobiographical and historical amnesia. The literal translation for Scott Bolzan: The first 46 years of his life have been wiped clean.

He doesn’t remember anything: His parents, his childhood, birthdays, his first kiss, his wedding day, the births of his children, his wife, presidents, wars, what food he liked, where he lived.

All of it, gone.

Imagine waking up one day not knowing who you are and the closest people in your life are complete strangers. There’s no cure, no hope. Just emptiness.

“I’m trying to learn who I am,” Scott said. “How I grew up, what do I stand for, what are my values, what were my goals and dreams? I lost all of that.”

Dr. Praful Reddy, a neurologist at the Center for Neurology and Stroke in Phoenix, said Bolzan’s condition is so uncommon that it should be written up in medical journals.

“Normally, you would expect some short-term memory loss. That’s the most common thing,” Reddy said. “But to lose everything that happened to him prior to the incident, there has to be quite an extensive brain injury.”

That’s what was so confusing to the Bolzans at first. A CAT scan came back clean. So did an MRI. His skull wasn’t fractured. Yet he had no memory.

Reddy, who did not examine Bolzan — Scott’s neurologist couldn’t be reached for comment — theorized that Bolzan may have suffered a loss of blood flow to his frontal and temporal lobes, which is what Scott said his doctor told him.

“It’s not a simple matter of one part of the brain being dysfunctional,” Reddy said. “Sometimes it’s like a stroke, where you can forget everything. But I’ve not seen a case like this.”

Scott was in the hospital for three days. Longtime friend J.D. Hill, the former Arizona State wide receiver turned minister, visited one day and they prayed together. After Hill left, Scott turned to Joan and said, “Who’s that?”

At that point, Joan believed her husband simply had gaps in his memory. She was telling him about their life, about their marriage and children, and Scott was nodding in affirmation, as if he understood.

But it was an act.

“I was kind of putting on a show so they didn’t get hysterical,” Scott said.

Scott’s short-term memory is fine. Unlike some patients with autobiographical and historical amnesia, he doesn’t forget what happens each day. His speech and motor skills remain unaffected, and he has held onto his procedural memory — driving a car, operating a microwave, etc.

If you didn’t ask him about his past, you’d have no idea anything was wrong with him.

Scott’s doctors believed his long-term memory would return as well. They told him it could be days or, at the outside, a couple of weeks.

“Nobody really seemed concerned about it,” Joan said. “We left the hospital under the assumption that he would be OK.”

So it didn’t alarm the Bolzans when they returned to their Gilbert home and, upon opening the door, Scott said, “Where’s the bedroom?”

Nor were they panicked by the blinding headaches Scott was experiencing 24 hours a day, the lack of sleep — Scott was getting by on no more than three hours a night — or the fact he couldn’t see out of the bottom of his right eye. If you think of the eye as a clock, everything from 3 to 9 was dark as coal.

The headaches have diminished over time; Scott gets them maybe twice a week. He is sleeping a bit better, too, although there are nights he wakes up at 3 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep.

But he still can’t see out of the bottom half of his right eye and doctors say the condition is permanent. Scott, a licensed pilot, never will fly again. He now runs his business from an office in his home.

It’s the memories he wants back the most, though. Eight months have passed, and he still can’t remember a thing. He feels as if his life has been unplugged. When he celebrated his birthday on July 25, he felt like he had turned 1 year old.

“There has been a lot of depression and a lot of wondering,” Scott said. “Some days it just seems so overwhelming that you think, 'How am I going to do this? How am I going to learn everything?’ ”

The Bolzans try to have a sense of humor about Scott’s condition. Recently, Joan told Scott that she was 20 years old.

His response: “I have a head injury, but I’m not stupid.”

They smile, too, when they talk about a trip to the grocery store. Joan told Scott to pick out a box of cereal. Scott looked at the dozens of varieties and was baffled. He had no idea which cereal he liked.

“When we go to restaurants, I tell Joan that if I order something that I never would have ordered before, let me know,” Scott said.

There was little to laugh about the first couple of months at home, though. Scott didn’t want to go out in public because he feared people would think he was stupid. One day, he went to an NFL alumni meeting and a player asked him what teams he played for. Scott couldn’t tell him.

He spent much of his time watching television because it was the easiest way to try to figure out what had happened in the world the past 46 years. CNBC and The History Channel were his favorites.

After one program, he called Joan and said, “How come you didn’t tell me there was an assassination attempt on President Reagan?”

“I was just trying to figure out what had been going on,” Scott said. “I don’t know what I thought before but it just seems like a very cynical world which doesn’t help somebody who’s forgotten their entire life. I’m just being inundated with bad.”

Scott wasn’t the only one trying to climb out of a black hole. When his parents, Lou and Alice, came to visit in January, they had to come to grips with the fact their son didn’t recognize them. Fortunately, Scott’s disposition and sense of humor were intact, and they had their memories to fall back on.

“He was still Scott,” Alice said. “His personality was still the same. I guess the only way I can explain it is I wasn’t disconnected from him. When I see him, he’s my son.”

Joan’s suffering wasn’t as easy to shake. Her husband was home, but their emotional attachment was frayed. He didn’t know how to relate to her, what she liked and disliked. There were awkward conversations, as if they were on a blind date.

She would show Scott photos of their wedding day or their children and start to tell a story, but he’d stop her because it was too painful not being able to share the memory.

“There was no emotional attachment for me,” Scott said.

In addition, for the first time in their marriage, Joan was the head of the household. Scott always had been the alpha male, but now she had to take care of him, their 16-year-old daughter, Taylor, and help run the family business.

“It was pretty tumultuous to wake up and say, 'Oh my God, I’m in charge of the family now,’ ” Joan said. “I’m very educated and very confident, but I had not had to take on that role forever.”

Joan kept up a strong front at home because she didn’t want to upset Scott any further. But she’d sit in the parking lots of grocery stores and cry until she had no tears left.

“Yeah, it was completely overwhelming,” she said. “I had lost my best friend and my husband. The only way I could deal with it was to put myself in the third person and look at it that way. Because if I looked at it as it was happening to me, I probably would have crumbled.”

To make matters worse — as if that were possible — the Bolzans’ 20-year-old son, Grant, began using heroin again around the time Scott came home. Joan knew her son had relapsed, but she tried to keep the news from Scott.

“I was hiding his pain pills and he couldn’t figure out why,” she said. “Finally he just said, 'Either I have a drug problem or someone else does and you need to tell me what’s going on.’ ”

Learning of his son’s addiction devastated Scott. Joan knew they had done everything possible to help Grant, but with Scott’s memory gone, all he could do was wonder if he had failed as a father.

“You always think in the back of your mind, 'Is there something I could have done or something I could have said to maybe change things?’ That’s what I don’t know. I have all these questions I can’t answer.”

Scott is learning to live without any memory of his life.

“I think the longer it goes I’m just kind of coming to the grips that I may not get this back,” he said. “It’s getting easier to manage and live with.”

The Bolzans are writing a book about their experience and have created a Web site, www.scottbolzan.com. Scott hopes to do some public speaking as well.

“I think a lot of it is just an inspirational, that you can overcome just about anything,” Scott said. “If something bad does happen in your life, you have to deal with it and go from there.”

Scott is moving forward because he has to. He can’t go backward. There’s nothing there.

“Just the whole concept is sometimes very humorous because it leads to a lot of comedy,” Scott said. “Some days there’s nothing funny about it. But it’s going to be OK. It’s going to be all right.”

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