First Christmas: Coping with three decades of memory loss

Baton Rouge woman struck with extensive amnesia
Kim Denacola has lost about three decades worth of memories
Kim Denacola has lost about three decades worth of memories(WAFB)
Updated: Dec. 25, 2018 at 8:33 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Christmas trees can be a bit like a time capsule. Every ornament is like a memory preserved in glass and beads: a couple’s first Christmas, a trip to somewhere special, or a homemade trinket from a child.

For Kim Denicola, her tree is very much the story of her childhood. Made completely of silver tinsel and set high on a pedestal, the tree drips with ornaments handmade by her mother. At the bottom, a retro light throws colors from a spinning wheel onto its branches.

“The light is actually the one we had when I was a kid and it was in the original cardboard box it was in when we bought it,” explained Denicola.

Denicola’s Christmases as a teenager are vivid in her head. They are, in fact, the last Christmases she remembers.

“It’s kind of depressing because you think you’ve lost all those years. I have two biological children that I didn’t know I had. When this, in my mind, the last thing I remember I was about to turn 18. I’m 56 now,” said Denicola.

Denicola is missing more than three decades of her memories. In early October, she was leaving a bible study when her husband says she called, complaining of an intense headache and blurry vision. He told her to go to the emergency room, and some friends rushed her over. The first thing Denicola remembers from that day was lying in a hospital bed while a nurse tried to give her an IV.

“She said, ‘Do you know what today is, what year are you in?’ I said, ‘Yeah, 1980.’ And she said, ‘Can you tell me who the president is?’ I said, ‘Yes, Ronald Regan.’ And she stopped,” said Denicola.

Denicola says a doctor quickly came in and asked her the same series of questions, and she realized something was very wrong. When her husband walked in and grabbed her hand, she had no idea who he was.

Rounds of scans and exams revealed no obvious reason for her sudden and extensive amnesia. Until a test reveals something else, her official diagnosis is transient global amnesia or TGA, but Denicola’s physician says her case is extremely unusual.

“The time period of memory loss is longer. She’s recalling back to where she doesn’t remember computers, so that was back in the 80s or 90s, so that’s really unusual that you have that type of memory loss associated,” said Dr. Tasha Shamlin.

More than two months after the incident, nothing from Denicola’s memory has returned.

“It is mind boggling. When I found out I was married, I had two biological children, I have two boys that I raised that are my nephews, and I have three stepchildren, so that’s seven kids that I impacted in some way over those 38 years that I have no clue about,” said Denicola.

From her husband of more than a decade to her children and grandchildren, Denicola has slowly rediscovered the people who love her most. It also meant enduring new heartbreak over the deaths of her parents and her only brother.

“They’re gone, but all these other ones I’m just going to learn what to do and how to, how to be their mom, at 18,“ said Denicola.

Denicola’s husband, David, and stepson, Matthew, helped fill in the gaps of her memory, patiently teaching her how to use computers and cell phones, which now seem so foreign. Denicola says it has been exciting to learn new things.

“TVs are now smart. The TV I remember was a box that sat against a wall that we had to get up and go change the channel,” she said.

Despite all the challenges, Denicola is optimistic, even excited. She says her whole family is a constant source of patient support. She also hopes she can help others dealing with memory loss. Denicola is starting by making this Christmas a new first, starting over with the family who has loved her always.

“I was in tears for days afterwards,” said Denicola. “But you can do it. You can make it through those bad things. It’s just one foot in front of the other.”

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