The Amazing Story of a JBU Alumna Who Lost Her Entire Memory
By Tracy Balzer
Monday, February 13, 2012
JBU class reunions hold the promise of reuniting good friends and recounting the old college-days stories: pranks played, matches made, courses conquered. At the same time, there may be a corresponding fear that accompanies the experience: What if I don’t recognize her? What if I don’t remember his name?
When Beth (Buth) Walker ’85 planned for her class reunion in the Fall of 2010, such fears were nonexistent. A traumatic neurological illness in her young adult years took all of Beth’s memories from her, including her years at JBU. Beth knew in advance that she wouldn’t recognize her former classmates. Even so, she and her husband, Hal Walker ’82 attended her class gathering that Homecoming on the John Brown University campus, eager to share the story of reassembling not only her memories, but her entire life.
Beth and Hal once lived in married student housing at JBU as a young couple working hard to complete their undergraduate degrees. Ten years later they found themselves in Loudon, Tenn., enjoying life as parents to a curly-haired 2-year-old daughter named Jordan. One evening, during a birthday party for Hal in their home, Beth experienced a migraine headache and excused herself from the party to recover. Sometime later Hal went to check on her, and to his alarm, discovered her on the floor in a fetal position and burning up with 106-degree fever. Their friends helped transport her to the emergency room and she was admitted to the hospital. An otherwise unremarkable birthday celebration ended as Beth slipped into a coma and was placed on life support.
For several days, Beth’s condition mystified doctors. Her brain dangerously swelled and the high fever stubbornly continued. Neurosurgeons could make only one suggestion, to perform a risky surgery to remove part of Beth’s brain. This would allow for the swelling to decrease and buy them more time to determine a diagnosis. It was a terrifying suggestion, with a grim prognosis. If Beth survived the surgery, doctors predicted she would likely be an invalid.
Beth and Hal’s small group from church responded immediately. They came to Beth’s intensive care room, laid their hands on her and prayed. Meanwhile, Hal likewise held fast in the small prayer chapel in the hospital, pleading on his wife’s behalf for God’s miraculous intervention. Soon after, doctors returned to Beth’s room, and to their astonishment, discovered Beth’s condition had miraculously stabilized. No surgery would be needed, and hospital personnel joined the Walkers’ friends and family in celebrating.
One week after experiencing the initial migraine, Beth emerged from her coma and doctors finally arrived at a diagnosis: viral encephalitis. The worst appeared to be over; Beth had survived. What hadn’t survived the ordeal was a significant amount of Beth’s neurological function. She awoke from her coma unable to read, walk, write, or eat on her own. Her memory was drastically impaired, stealing away her ability to recognize her own family, or even remember her own name. “I was introduced to a tall, good looking man and a cute little girl as my husband and my daughter,” Beth now recalls. She had no memory of either of them, two strangers who were, according to friends and doctors, the most important people in her life. Even today, Beth still does not remember the very first time she met her husband, or falling in love with him, or even marrying him. “I didn’t get to pick this husband!” she jokes.
Six months of intense rehabilitation at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in Knoxville, Tenn., were needed for Beth to begin putting the unrecognizable pieces of her life back together. Her toddling daughter, Jordan, pushed Beth through the halls in her wheelchair and helped feed her, a practical and meaningful way of helping mother and daughter get reacquainted. One of the results of Beth’s illness is “visual memory deficit,” a condition that continues to make life a challenge. In those early recovery days, friends helped make the transition from rehab center to home by staying with Beth. She needed ongoing re-orientation to her own home, learning one minute the location of the kitchen, forgetting it the next.
The swelling of the brain had caused Beth’s childhood, adulthood, and important relationships to be completely inaccessible to her, with one remarkable exception. Miraculously, Beth maintains perfect recall of the day when she, at just eight years of age, put her trust in Jesus and received the gift of salvation. She clearly remembers attending the Bethel Missionary Baptist Church where Pastor John F. Whitely was speaking at revival services, and as the congregation joined in singing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” young Beth responded to the irresistible invitation presented to her. “He drew me into His family,” She says. “I [now] understand the meaning of how Jesus said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you,’ and ‘Do not be afraid.’” In spite of the damage done to her frontal lobe (Beth describes the visual image of her brain as resembling “swiss cheese”) the memory of that life-changing childhood moment remains with her, a source of encouragement and assurance.
Through the months and years of rehabilitation, Hal stayed true to his bride, determined that their original love for each other and for the Lord would see them through the process of reconstructing their relationship. Once Beth’s rehabilitation was complete, Hal made a special effort to “create” a memory of their wedding for her by arranging a small wedding in Tennessee. Beth wore her original wedding gown, and their daughter Jordan served as ring bearer. “We like to say that we have been married twice to the same person and never divorced!” Beth smiles at the very real memory she has been given, thanks to Hal’s loving efforts on her behalf.
Trauma, however, puts the best of marriages to the test. Hal and Beth have had to learn to know and love each other all over again. Their repeated attendance at Family Life marriage retreats has helped provide the resources they need to stick together. Likewise, they’ve depended greatly on their church family and members of their small group. “God is working on us both,” Beth says, and recognizes their need to depend on the Lord for both the big and the small things. Because of ongoing visual memory challenges, they have equipped her car with GPS devices just in case she gets disoriented. “I pray a lot when I am lost,” she says, but testifies to God’s faithful protection over the years.
Now, almost 20 years after her life-changing incident, Beth has found many ways to “turn misery into ministry.” She takes advantage of any invitation to share her testimony in churches, women’s groups, and with Stonecroft Ministries. She notes that from a purely medical standpoint, she should not be able to do what she is now able to do. “In all of this we can see how medicine shows God’s mercy, but miracles show His power!”
Beth discovered another avenue of ministry through her interest and expertise in breeding and raising golden retrievers. She has worked with Human Animal Bond in Tennessee (H.A.B.I.T.), an organization that utilizes volunteers like Beth and her dogs, to facilitate pet visitation to care-giving facilities like nursing homes, hospitals, rehab centers, and others. Beth has found herself ministering to those in the very rehabilitation centers where she was once a resident. Through such visitations, Beth is able to tell her story to others and encourage them in their own distress. And it has provided Beth with a greater sense of purpose in her own life as well.
When asked what sort of encouragement or wisdom she has to pass on to others who have experienced life-threatening trauma and its aftermath, Beth does not hesitate. “Satan attacks and makes me feel down, lost, confused and angry,” she reflects, and then strongly exhorts, “Seek God’s face!” She cites practices like journaling that have helped her “put the pieces together,” and emphasizes the essential role that the “circle of great believers” around her has played. Her lively spirit has played a part as well. “I can get cocky and forget to be dependent on the Lord,” she relates with a chuckle. And then she finds herself corrected: “I lose my keys all the time, and at some point the hardware man will have to tell me that I’ve reached the maximum number of times I can copy keys!”
Accompanied by faithful family and friends, a deep trust in God, and a healthy sense of humor, Beth Walker has experienced losing and being lost – and the miracle that comes with being found and finding again.