Man With Amnesia Lost 46 Years in Workplace Slip

Wife uses photos to help man re-learn life after he hit head in workplace fall.

April 16, 2010, 3:09 PM

April 19, 2010 — -- The videos and photographs show scenes from a full and prosperous life: A couple getting married, raising kids, celebrating the holidays and taking family vacations.

They're precious memories. But the man who lived them cannot remember them -- any of them.

In fact Scott Bolzan has no memory of any part of his life story. It's all been erased.

"These are things I know I should remember," said Bolzan, 47. "My first date, my first kiss with my wife, our wedding day, the birth of my children -- all of those memories that everyone else in the whole world shares. ... These are things I know I should remember ... I have no emotional attachment to these days even when I look at the pictures."

Bolzan has an extreme case of severe retrograde amnesia. He slipped in the men's restroom of his office building and hit his head on the ground. He can remember nothing that happened prior to the accident. Over the past 16 months, he has had to re-meet family and friends, while embarking on a journey to re-learn his life story and re-build a sense of self-identity.

"The best word I can use to describe it is just being lost," said Bolzan. "Because I lost who I am."

"Nightline" followed Bolzan and his family over several months in Phoenix to document some of the amnesiac's "first" experiences as he struggled to make sense of his former life.

Bolzan's wife, Joan, 47, has organized their family photos in chronological order. Boxes and boxes of hundreds of snapshots cover an entire table.

"It's hard to think it's not there," Joan Bolzan said. "You just keep thinking that something, something will trigger it."

Each day, the couple chooses a pile of photos to review. Photos of a birthday party they threw for their daughter, Taylor. The tree where he proposed to her when they were college sweethearts at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb.

"This is the tree in the park at Northern by the lake," said Joan.

"Oh, that's the tree?" Scott replied.

"That's the tree!"

"Get out! So that's where it all started."

"That's it."

Joan does this in the hope something will spark some memory of who Scott was.

"I just try to take a little chunk at a time, in little pieces," she said.

Joan Bolzan acknowledged that living with her husband's memory loss sometimes leaves her at a loss.

"It's pretty overwhelming to think that all that happened and he doesn't know any of it..." she said. "That's what life's all about, creating memories, I guess."

Amnesia From a Bathroom Slip

Forty-six years of memories disappeared, seemingly in an instant.

Sixteen months ago, Bolzan was in the middle of his usual morning routine at work at Legendary Jets, a jet management company where he was CEO. On his way to get coffee, he stopped in the men's restroom, and it was there that he slipped on what he thinks was a puddle of cleaning oil.

"I remember my feet going above my head," said Bolzan. "That's the last actual memory that I can recall."

Bolzan awoke in the hospital.

"He kept repeating what had happened, saying 'It was oily, it was slippery, I couldn't get up,'" said Joan.

Scott said a beautiful woman was standing over him.

"I didn't know who anybody was compared to a hospital employee, all I knew is that she was different," he said. Only later did he learn that she was his wife of more than 25 years.

"She came up to me and gave me a hug and a kiss, but I had no idea who this person was," said Bolzan.

Bolzan had suffered a blow to the back of his head and was treated for a severe concussion. After three days in the hospital, he was released and sent home. The doctors told his family that he would be a little fuzzy but would recover within the week.

"At that early concussion stage, those gaps in memory are normal, no one thought anything of it," said Joan Bolzan.

Scott remembered the disorientation that followed his accident.

"On the drive home, it was, again, anxiety," he said. "I'm like, 'Where am I going, what is this going to bring me now? Where do we live, what do we do?' And then we walk in this house and I'm like, 'OK, where do I go?'"

On the outside he seemed fine. But what Bolzan didn't tell anyone was that everything seemed foreign. He had no recollection -- of anything. Not his wife, not his children, not a single thing in their home.

"Nothing looked familiar, not one thing," Bolzan said. "You know, in this bathroom, I'm sure I showered in there a thousand times, or whatever, but nothing looked familiar. ... I started opening up drawers and I went into my closets. ... I just started looking at things, but nothing looked familiar, but it looked like it would fit me so then I started rationalizing things of, OK, maybe I did live here, maybe this is my home."

But even more disturbing to Bolzan was that he had no clue who he was.

"It was just a lost feeling of not knowing where I am in this world and who I am," said Bolzan. "So that was a very difficult day."

Attempt to Hide Extent of Amnesia

The days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months. It became impossible for Bolzan to hide the vastness of his amnesia from those around him.

"I didn't have any concept of like my parents, my wife, children, family friends, relatives," Bolzan said. "My wife would tell me about my parents, but every time we talk now, it's like an interviewing process. I'm trying to gather information, what was I like as a kid, what was our relationship like. ... I did not have the concept of husband and wife. What a husband did for a wife and what a wife did for a husband."

"He had lost everything historical as well," Joan Bolzan said. "Turned on the TV, he didn't know one historical person, one actor, he didn't know anything."

Scott recalled the anxiety he felt.

"I had a fear of running into someone I knew 20 years, and they say, 'Hi Scott,' and I have no idea, and they're like, 'What's wrong with you?'" Bolzan said. "I cried for -- months, I mean, I did not want to leave the house for months."

Joan Bolzan said she still sheds tears.

"He was the only person I've ever known my whole adult life, and experienced marriage ... and parenting, and all those things that you share together as a couple," she said. "And the things that you know between the two of you, he doesn't have any more."

Four months after the accident, Scott still had no memories.

"One neurologist said, you probably need a psychiatrist," he said.

He started to question his own sanity.

"We'd go to one neurologist," said Joan, "and they're like, 'I've never heard of anybody losing their entire life.' So they didn't know."

They switched doctors several times, and finally Bolzan underwent a brain scan that seemed to provide a medical explanation for his rare condition.

"It was determined that I have no blood flow going to the right temporal lobe of my brain," said Bolzan. "Which is where all my long-term memory is stored."

Bolzan's neurologist declined an interview with ABC News. But Dr. Ron Korn, the radiologist who conducted the scan, showed us inside his patient's brain.

"We're looking at a brain blood flow study called a SPECT scan," Korn explained. The scan is a type of nuclear imaging test that produces 3-D images, which are color-coded to show blood flow.

"If you look at Scott's image ... you can see that there is bloodflow to the back part of the brain," said Korn. "But [you also see] dramatic reduction in bloodflow to the front part of his brain, both on the left side and the right side, compared to a normal person. ... It really shows a dramatic loss of blood flow to the front part of his brain."

Bolzan's primary physician, Dr. Teresa Lanier, said the SPECT scan shows he has a severe case of retrograde amnesia.

"He meets all the criteria, it's very well established," Lanier said. "It would basically have to be a miracle for him to one day wake up and have complete and intact memory of everything he has lost. That's probably just never going to happen."

The diagnosis provided Bolzan with a better understanding of his predicament. "If my life was a key board, someone pressed the delete button, and all my memory is gone -- it's like a real bad computer crash."

Man With Amnesia Starts From Scratch

That was when Joan Bolzan realized she had to start from scratch, and help her husband relearn the story of his life.

"Because I have no concept of who I am as a person, I don't know you know, what my dreams, my aspirations, what my goals were," said Scott.

Sifting through boxes of photos and old videos, Bolzan has learned a lot about the man he was before the accident: a college football star from Chicago turned professional NFL offensive guard for the Patriots and the Browns.

Bolzan was a pilot, who ran a successful private jet management company, before his accident. Joan brought him to an airplane hangar hoping it would jog his memory, but it didn't.

He says that kind of thing doesn't bother him much. "You don't miss what you don't know," he said.

But what does bother Bolzan is that he doesn't remember any of his relationships. His wife has become the gatekeeper of their marital memories.

"The day that he lost his memories; I lost my memories with my husband, sharing them," Joan said. "It's definitely been a death of our marriage, our lives together. It's really hard."

Life Filled with Wonder

In a lot of ways, Bolzan's every day is filled with a child-like wonder tempered by an adult's intelligence and articulation.

This fall he experienced his "first" Halloween.

"I'm finding it very, very odd that people would dress up the way they do," he said, observing trick-or-treaters. He carved his "first" pumpkin and was surprised to find it filled with pulp and seeds. "I would've never guessed that's what it looked like inside," he said.

At Thanksgiving, he had his first bite of roasted turkey. Each season is one of exploration, every experience is new. From different animals to different trees, Bolzan is amazed by the variety of life.

"You try to learn the most you can, like the solar system, but I don't know what it consists of, I know that there are planets out there, but I don't know how many," he said. "It's so overwhelming. If I think of the big picture, I'd go crazy."

Bolzan continues to see the doctor about insomnia, and his terrible migraine headaches. A neuropsychologist helps him cope with the anxiety that comes with being forever disoriented.

A year after the accident, at age 47, Bolzan and his family celebrated his one-year-old memory with a birthday cake.

He will never fly planes again, and he lost the business knowledge required to run his company. But he has taken up two new passions: writing and motivational speaking.

"I think this whole process is kind of like the grieving process. At first I was very sad, very shocked, then I was scared, then I was mad, then I just accepted it," Bolzan said.

Doctors say he'll never be able to recover his memory. But Bolzan continues one day at a time, to create memories that will hopefully, last a lifetime.