Fran Geall was struck down with the auto-immune condition encephalitis – a potentially deadly condition that causes swelling on the brain.
The marine biologist forgot everything about her £50,000 five year masters degree and even struggled to remember some of her closest friends and family.
The 25-year-old, from Falmouth, Cornwall, said: “With people I’m told I’ve known for years, it can be like meeting them for the first time, which is really sad.
“I also feel like I’m meeting myself again, because I have absolutely no idea who I was before all this was.
“People say there’s a new Fran, that I’m a different person and they’re having to accept that.
“I’m not so sure if I like the new Fran, though. All I want is to get back to the old me, who achieved so much and built so many loving relationships.”
As “old Fran” she completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology, before being awarded a Master of Science in sustainable agriculture from Plymouth University.
Keen to work in ethical agriculture, in January 2018 she landed her dream job working as a business development manager for an oyster company in Whitstable, Kent.
In December 2015 got engaged to marry the love of her life, teacher Stacey Tonkins, 29, who she met at university in 2014.
But her happiness was shattered in March this year, when she began suffering with migraines so crippling that she was forced to stay in bed for a week.
She saw her GP and once visited A&E, but doctors thought she had pulled a muscle in her neck as she could not put her chin to her chest.
Then, one morning in March, she began having a seizure in bed and it became clear something was very wrong.
Stacey called an ambulance to rush her straight to Kent’s Ashford Hospital, where she was immediately put into an induced coma.
Coming to a week later, she seemed like a completely different person.
Unable to read, walk or speak for several weeks, she is still relearning everything she forgot.
“Doing the simplest things, like using a computer or navigating around a supermarket have now become very difficult,” she said.
“But what is heartbreaking for me is that my intellect, which was like my superpower, is now gone, and all the years I spent learning facts and learning about the natural world has been wiped out like chalk on a blackboard.”
Despite having scant memories of her life before her brain condition Fran said she still feels an instinctive emotional link to many of her loved ones, such as Stacey, her parents and her siblings.
But she has no recollection at all of her sisters-in-law or her niece and having to rebuild those relationships from scratch.
“When Stacey and my family visited me in hospital, I knew instinctively that they were people I loved, but I couldn’t remember anything about them, apart from very minimal, basic details,” she recalled.
“They would show me photos of old times together and it wouldn’t jog anything – it’s like looking at someone else’s life.
“I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t walk and I had no idea who anyone around me was or what had happened to me.”
Slowly, her faculties began to return, although Fran could write before she could talk.
“I don’t know why, but the first thing I was able to write down was my mum’s telephone number,” she said.
“I couldn’t remember anything, but for some reason I could remember that.
“The second thing I wrote was, ‘things are a jumble.’
“My friends and family tried to communicate by speaking and writing things down, too, but I couldn’t understand anything.”
Things gradually improved when Fran was given a plasma exchange ten days after being admitted to hospital, a procedure which replaced the white blood cells in her system that had been attacking her brain.
After that, her speech recovered and she started writing a daily diary but it didn’t trigger any memories.
Discharged from hospital after five weeks, determined to get back to normal, she returned to work.
But a few days later she had a major seizure.
Encephalitis is a rare but serious condition in which the brain becomes inflamed.
It can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital.
It is caused by the spread of a viral infection or bacterial infections.
Anyone can be affected, but the very young and very old are most at risk.
It sometimes starts off with flu like symptoms such as a high temperature and headache.
More serious symptoms include:
Encephalitis needs to be treated in a hospital. The earlier treatment is started, the more successful it's likely to be.
It may involve:
“I realised then that my recovery would take a lot longer than I had imagined,” she said.
“The doctors have no idea if I will ever regain my memories, so I’m living with the prospect of potentially having to relearn everything I ever knew.”
Now based in Falmouth, near Stacey’s family who are helping to support her – Fran is putting all her energy into her recovery.
She said: “When I’m out people will sometimes come up to me and say hello, as they recognise me from when I lived here before.
“Obviously, they don’t know what I’ve been through. I have no idea who they are, but still smile and pretend to know them.
“We only have a brief conversation, so they’re usually none the wiser. If I talk to anyone for longer, they can usually tell something isn’t quite right, so I tell them what happened.”
Luckily, Fran has not lost her hunger for knowledge and is now reading up on everything she learnt at university, keen to retain it – although she can only study for short periods as the mental exertion can trigger seizures.
Doctors still have no idea what caused her encephalitis.
Although the future remains uncertain, Fran is delighted when people tell her they still see signs of the person she used to be.
“People say that I used to crack a lot of jokes, and I’m starting to do that again now,” she said.
“But I suppose when you’re in a situation like mine, what else can you do?”
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