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My Tiger Woods moment: How I lost 24 hours to a rare form of amnesia

June 01, 2017
the highway lamps


Here’s my take on the recent traffic incident involving Tiger Woods. This might not be what happened to Tiger, but it happened to me, and his symptoms and behavior were eerily similar to mine.

Like Tiger, I had undergone back surgery. In 2012, my lower back was fused, which did nothing to eliminate the pain shooting down my right leg. I spent the next year on painkillers, mostly oxycodone. As the pain got worse, I took more pills. In 2013, a second opinion diagnosed me with spinal stenosis—a vertebrae in my upper back was pressed against my spine. That November, a surgeon operated and cut off a portion of the bone. A day later, I walked out of the hospital, pain-free. But it took me 18 months to recover from the surgery, because the doctor had cut through back muscles. I was slow to heal, slow to regain flexibility. So I took muscle relaxants.

Which brings me to July 2015. I was back playing golf and headed to Montgomery, Texas, to inspect the new BlueJack National, the first American course designed, ironically, by Tiger’s architecture firm. I checked into a Huntsville hotel the evening before and woke up the next evening in a hospital 40 miles away, in Conroe. I still have no recollection of what occurred in between.

My wife tells me that I had called her several times that morning, each time telling her the same thing: that I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing. The third time, she asked where I was calling from. I told her a gas station. She told me to hand my phone to a clerk. She then told the clerk to call an ambulance. She was certain I was suffering a stroke.

A team of doctors spent two days running me through tests: an MRI, an EKG, a treadmill stress test, even blood tests for carbon-monoxide poisoning. It was like a bad episode of “House,” with the team around my bed, clipboards in hand, reviewing results and eliminating possibilities. It wasn’t a stroke. Not a heart attack. Not a viral attack. Not poisoning. Not the onset of dementia. They finally agreed that I had experienced an incident of transient global amnesia. I’d never heard of such a thing. It’s rare, I’m told, often triggered by stress, extreme heat or cold, or a traumatic event. It has been described to me as though your brain shuts down and reboots.

I’m told I’ll never recover my memories of that lost 24 hours. But it’s also unlikely that I’ll ever experience such an incident again.

If I had amnesia, how was I able to drive? Who knows, but I apparently drove an automobile for 40 miles, if not unconscious, certainly in a fugue state of mind. I was lucky I didn’t have an accident. When my daughter recovered my rental car, still parked at the gas station, she found my luggage in the trunk. I had obviously checked out of the hotel that morning. She also found the passenger seat was covered with scattered road maps, as though I had been desperately trying to determine my location.

I don’t know what I looked like when the EMTs picked me up and transported me to the hospital, but I later learned what I sounded like. A year later, when I finally made it to Tiger’s course in Texas, the head pro told me that when I called him that fateful morning, I was speaking gibberish. I have no recollection of that, either.

Which brings me back to Tiger Woods. I used to prosecute DUI cases in Kansas. His is far from a classic DUI case. His breathalyzer test was negative; no alcohol in his system. He was found asleep at the wheel. He was confused about his location. Yes, that all could be the result of a bad reaction to prescription medications. But it could also be an incident of transient global amnesia. I’ve heard from several people who have experienced the same thing, or know someone who has.

I’m convinced that all the toxins I had put in my body the previous two years—and let’s be clear that prescription meds are toxins; they’re meant to kill something—contributed to my incident that July in Texas. I’m no medical doctor. But for now, I’m giving Tiger the benefit of the doubt.