Thursday, December 26, 2019

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Having a baby wiped my memory: Camre Curto longed to be a mother, but a near-fatal pregnancy crisis left her unable to recognise her fiance… or even her newborn son

Just imagine your brain was wiped clean of every memory you have ever had. Well, that’s what happened to Camre Curto when, pregnant with her first child, she suffered near-fatal complications that destroyed her ability to retain new memories and deleted earlier ones.

Her condition also meant her son, Gavin, had to be delivered by emergency Caesarean. And so Camre found herself a new mum in a bewildering and frightening world, unable to recognise her fiance, Steve, or even remember her baby’s birth.

At first, although her words came out in clear English, the sentences were garbled and meant nothing. Slowly, though, she started to make her meaning clear and could walk and talk, but had no memory beyond the present moment.

Just imagine your brain was wiped clean of every memory you have ever had. Well, that’s what happened to Camre Curto (left) when, pregnant with her first child, she suffered near-fatal complications. Right: Her husband Steve

Doctors couldn’t say what would happen next — because they simply didn’t know. Her devastated family was told that her brain was like a computer hard drive whose files had all been erased, and nothing that had been lost would ever be recovered.

‘From the day you’re born, you start creating memories,’ says Camre, her voice soft but assured. ‘Knowing I don’t have any, especially the big things like marriage and pregnancy, and never will, is hard to accept, but I try to make the best of every day.’

The bright, charming woman who greets me at the home she shares with Steve and Gavin, now a sweet and curious seven-year-old who is the image of his mother, has certainly made remarkable progress.

Slightly built, wearing jeans and a striped jumper and with her dark hair held back in a plait, 31-year-old Camre is clearly shy, but a welcoming smile lights up her face. Though she looks frail, she exudes a positive attitude.

The family’s tasteful home is spick and span. A huge Christmas tree is the focal point of a living room whose windows look out on woodland. It’s an idyllic picture — but when we sit down to talk, I hear just what extraordinary odds this young woman has battled to overcome.

She and Steve have written a book about their experiences, which serves to remind Camre of their story each time she reads it.

‘It’s hard because, now the book’s out, I’m seeing what I’ve lost. But you’ve just got to enjoy each moment,’ she says.

Most of us take our memories for granted. We have a strong sense of our identities because we recall our childhoods and know who our family and friends are. We can drive a car, do our jobs or go shopping because we remember having done these things many times before.

Camre knows now that she is a wife and mother — some new memories have started to be laid down in her brain, although they often don’t last — but there is a long way to go before she has anything like a normal life.

‘I try to keep going,’ she says. ‘I pick myself up and try to make jokes and be funny about what’s happened.’

But it cannot be easy. As she does not remember her past and new memories last only a short time, Camre is anxious about going out in public. ‘People will come up and say hello,’ she says. ‘They’ll say: “Oh, we’ve met before” and I feel stupid.’

Her condition also meant her son, Gavin, had to be delivered by emergency Caesarean. Pictured: The family together

For her son’s sake, she attends events at his school, even though they fill her with anxiety. She shows me the notes her occupational therapist encouraged her to write about a recent mother-son dance.

‘Before the event: Anxiety 7/10, scared, anger, anxiety.

‘After: It wasn’t that bad, Gavin was glad that I went. I’m glad I went.’

In conversation, Camre looks constantly to Steve for reassurance.

‘She’s the strongest and most courageous person I’ve ever known,’ he says, squeezing her hand. He tells me her story — because, although she has now heard it many times, she still remembers none of it.

The couple met in 2009 and, three years later, were delighted when she became pregnant. But at 33 weeks, she suffered pre-eclampsia, a potentially fatal pregnancy disorder characterised by high blood pressure and swelling. It developed into full-blown eclampsia and caused seizures, so she was raced to surgery to save her — and Gavin’s — life.

Camre knows now that she is a wife and mother — some new memories have started to be laid down in her brain, although they often don’t last — but there is a long way to go before she has anything like a normal life. Pictured: The family together

During an emergency Caesarean, Camre lost oxygen supply to her brain for five to eight minutes. She had a stroke and bleeding in her brain, which caused her catastrophic memory loss. Gavin was delivered safely, but weighed just 4 lb 1 oz.

Camre was kept in a medically induced coma for two days. When she regained consciousness, ‘I knew immediately something was wrong,’ recalls Steve, 38.

‘She looked at me and her parents and there was this empty stare. I remember thinking: “Camre’s not there.” She started hallucinating, talking to her hand as if it was a phone.’

She had suffered damage to the hippocampus, an area of the brain vital to long and short-term memory. ‘They told us she was healthy, but her memory was wiped, and they couldn’t say if it was going to come back,’ says Steve. ‘I broke down. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the enormity of it, but it never crossed my mind to give up.’

‘A lot of other men would have,’ interjects Camre.

She went home to be cared for by her parents — she retained an instinctive bond with her mother, but couldn’t remember her name — and, every day, Steve would visit and be treated as a stranger.

‘I’d say: “It’s me, Steve.” And she would just stare at me,’ he says. ‘I’d ask if she wanted to see our son who was still in hospital and she’d say something like: “No, I’m OK.”

‘She was never hostile or angry, but she had no idea who I was or why I said we had a son together. She didn’t understand.’

He knew this arrangement couldn’t last for ever, so one day he insisted on taking Camre to see her son, hoping it might help her.

‘The nurses and I sat her in a chair and put Gavin in her arms,’ says Steve. ‘She touched his cheek and asked: “Whose baby is this?” When I told her he was hers, she said: “I have a baby?” We went through that routine so many times.’

Gavin, who spent the first few weeks of his life in an incubator, was released from hospital and his father had to shoulder his care alone.

Then, eight weeks after Camre came home from hospital, ‘I’d just explained for the thousandth time who I was, and suddenly she looked me straight in the eyes and said: “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you.” ’

Steve is emotional at the memory. Camre, who cannot remember it, sits calmly beside him.

The couple met in 2009 and, three years later, were delighted when she became pregnant. Camre, Stebe and Gavin together

‘All my worries vanished. I knew we were going to be OK,’ says Steve.

It was the first step on a long road. Camre needed to relearn everyday skills: how to wash her hair, brush her teeth and dress.

‘We would go through changing Gavin’s nappies a thousand times, as well as how to burp and feed him. She was always very gentle with this baby that she didn’t know was hers.’

Slowly, Camre came to recognise her own name, then Steve’s.

‘She said one day: “I think I know you — you’re around a lot, aren’t you?’ ” he laughs. ‘It was as if her brain was waking up and then, just as my hopes got high, it would shut down again.’

As Camre’s brain began to heal, she finally understood that she was a mother.

‘It took another year of repeating everything over and over again until it really sank in and stayed,’ says Steve. ‘I was so happy for her.

‘She was uncomfortable and even a little scared to spend the night in our own house at first, but she had always wanted to be a mother more than anything, so I thought we had to go back to living as a family.’

Camre’s mother, Cheryl, agreed, and encouraged her daughter to spend the night at her home with Steve and the baby two years after her injury. ‘We’ve been together ever since,’ adds Steve.

Camre was still incapable of being left alone, so for months Steve would drop her and Gavin off at her parents’ house each day, go to work, then pick them up again in the evening.

In 2015, three years after Gavin’s birth, the couple married in the garden of their house in Michigan, in the U.S.

If Camre was on her own, it would take her hours just to get washed and dressed — even with the help of notes from her mother about how to wash her hair and put on make-up.

The couple also had to relearn being physical. ‘It took a while — a couple of years,’ says Steve. ‘It came from me showing up every day and waiting until she was comfortable. I didn’t push her, but eventually it happened.’

Steve would love to have a second child, but feels his wife’s health isn’t up to it.

‘Camre wouldn’t remember she was pregnant,’ he says. ‘It’s too much of a risk — but maybe in the future.’

In 2015, three years after Gavin’s birth, the couple married in the garden of their house in Michigan, in the U.S. Camre produces an iPad and we scroll through pictures. She was a beautiful bride, I say.

‘I don’t see myself, not really,’ she replies. ‘I watch our wedding video quite a bit and I can’t see it without tears because it was such a perfect day. I always try to see if I have any memories of it and I have nothing.

‘I want the feelings that come with memories — the happiness, the sadness — I want it all. I tell Steve a picture to me is just a picture, there’s nothing behind it. He tells me where we were and what we were doing.’

Now, there are jokes in the Curto household. ‘She’s a tough cookie,’ says Steve.

‘I married him, so I have to be,’ Camre shoots back.

‘Steve doesn’t let me stay in the down,’ she adds, using her phrase for the depression that she endures, exacerbated by the strong medications she takes.

‘I try to enjoy each day. I feed the deer in the garden. I tidy up and I’m always happy to see Steve and Gavin. I’m very happy to have my family.’

As a result of her injury, Camre suffers from epilepsy and has had hundreds of seizures over the years. Next year, she hopes to have a brain implant to control the seizures better.

‘I want my life back. I used to be able to work, to drive a car. I don’t remember it, but I used to do those things,’ she says sadly.

Steve now works from home so he can be Camre’s full-time carer, but it’s clear she is itching for her freedom.

‘I wish it was me taking Gavin to school and doing the shopping. I want to be able to think back. It kills me that I can’t.’

Camre is unlikely to get her full memory back, and it’s not certain how far she will recover.

‘She’s gone from remembering for a few seconds to hours,’ says Steve. ‘And sometimes she can have a two or three-day window of remembering something important to her, such as an event at Gavin’s school. But the saddest thing is that it fades after that.’

He puts his arm around his wife’s shoulder.

‘She’s come so far, and we believe that she will improve. But, whatever happens, I tell Camre the past doesn’t matter; it’s only today that’s important.

‘We just take it one day at a time — and that’s how we will always do it.’ 

  • But I Know I Love You by Steve and Camre Curto is available now on amazon.com

 

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