Ex-Football Player's Life Is Deleted by Retrograde Amnesia

PHOTO: Scott and Joan Bolzan rebuilt their marriage after he lost all memory of their relationship after he suffered a head injury in a fall that caused permanent retrograde amnesia.
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Scott Bolzan, a former NFL player and successful aviation entrepreneur, arrived early at his Phoenix office three years ago, but a trip to the bathroom changed his life forever. He slipped on wet cleaning oil and landed on the back of his head. By the time paramedics got him to the emergency room, he had lost 46 years of his life.

Inexplicably at first, the head injury triggered retrograde amnesia. The last thing Bolzan remembered was his feet going into the air.

Bolzan had no memory of who he was, or who the worried blond woman sitting beside his hospital bed was. He no longer even knew what the word "wife" meant.

In their new memoir that comes out Oct. 4, "My Life, Deleted," Bolzan, now 49, and Joan, his wife of 26 years, describe the trauma of piecing back together his past and starting over again as husband and wife.

"My well of darkness seemed bottomless," he writes. "Deep down, I knew I wasn't the same person. I feared I never would be normal again."

Gone were memories of his earlier career playing for the Boston Patriots and Cleveland Browns, his job as CEO of the Legendary Jets, the stillborn death of his daughter, Taryn, and the subsequent birth of two other children.

That was in 2008, and today Bolzan has learned how to live with the large gap in his past and to rebuild his life -- economically and emotionally.

The amnesia took an equal toll on their children as the couple dealt simultaneously with their teenage son's addiction to heroin.

"It's been a long struggle," said Bolzan. "I have rebuilt my life through pictures and stories, and from family friends, mostly my wife."

"It would be a great story if it didn't happen to us," said Joan Bolzan, 48. "It's hard watching him struggle without wisdom and experience, the man who is the breadwinner, the alpha male. It's a rough road, but we'll get there."

Retrograde amnesia is the loss of memory of information acquired before injury, according to Margaret O'Connor, director of neuropsychology at the Center for Cognitive Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, and a professor at Harvard Medical School.

In anterograde or post-traumatic amnesia, the memory loss is of events after the injury or trauma.

Retrograde amnesia occurs after damage to the medial temporal lobe or encephalitis, and has fascinated doctors for more than a century. In its "purest form," there is dense memory loss, but the patient continues to have intelligence and reasoning, as well as language function, according to O'Connor.

Like Bolzan, amnesiacs can usually understand written and spoken words, and can retain skills such as bike riding or playing a musical instrument, which are part of procedural memory. They may also understand that they have a memory disorder.

Bolzan's case, one of the most severe on record, is likely irreversible, according to the couple. It took four months to diagnose. Bolzan was initially treated for a severe concussion and sent home from the hospital after three days. Doctors said he would likely recover within a week. But the memory loss continued, and one doctor even suggested it was psychological and that he should see a psychiatrist.

Bolzan continued to feel disoriented and nothing in his home looked familiar, including his two teenage children, Grant and Taylor, or even his own parents.

Doctors eventually determined from a brain scan that Blozan had no blood flow going to the right temporal lobe of his brain, where memory is stored.

Oddly, when Bolzan was first hospitalized after the accident, it was football play-off season. He realized he knew some of the rules of the game but had no idea about the divisions or players.

He could not remember how to start the car the first time he drove months later, but knew the meaning of road signs and lights. Like others with retrograde amnesia, he had no difficulty forming new memories.

O'Connor said Bolzan's case is "interesting" from a neurological standpoint, as head injuries rarely cause this kind of amnesia.

"Retrograde amnesia usually takes place in the context of infection, encephalitis or something causing ongoing seizures that disrupt the formation of memory," said O'Connor. But, she said, lack of oxygen "leaves a big footprint on the brain."

Medical experts also say that people with retrograde amnesia cannot recover their memory simply by being told the events of their life by others.

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