I was a third year psychology graduate student working at a county hospital and was simultaneously moon lighting as nursing staff at a state hospital. I was the go-to girl when staff needed help with their most challenging patients. I spent my days as a ‘professional’, building my skills as a psychologist. At night and on weekends, I spent time just being with patients. I practiced Michael Jackson moves with a mono-lingual Spanish speaking patient who loved to shop. I’d take him to the store on campus once a week and then we’d admire each other’s moves and show off once a week at the patient’s Clubhouse. I knew I had chosen the right path on evenings like the one I spent with Jumping Jack Flash. He was an elderly, paranoid, and delusional man known to spring out of his chair without warning and whack anyone who would try to stop him. I took my radio in case I needed help and took Jack out to enjoy a sunset in the desert one night. He drifted off to sleep as I was stroking his head.
Still, I had no confidence in my abilities as a therapist. I was terrified because I had to pass a competency exam to graduate to my fourth year. My task was to conceptualize a case, determine the course of treatment, record, transcribe, and analyze my sessions. Right.
I inherited Jon, a 28 year old amnesic man. Jon had little memory of the past and could not form new memories after being hit by a car while riding his moped without a helmet. His impairments were so severe that he was unable to benefit from traditional neuropsychological rehabilitation approaches.
Every time we met, it was like meeting for the first time. After making many mistakes in my desire to ‘do it right’ (that he blissfully did not remember!), I realized that what he needed was not unique, sophisticated, or advanced. Like my other patients, he needed to connect in his own way and feel understood.
Aleksandr Romanovich Luria said (in referring to another amnesic patient), and I think he was onto something…
“There are no prescriptions in a case like this. Do whatever your ingenuity and heart suggest. There is little or no hope of any recovery of his memory. But a man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being—matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak. And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him. Neuropsychologically, there is little or nothing you can do, but in the realm of the Individual, there may be much you can do.”
Several weeks later when recounting his notes on the highlights of his month, Jon stopped and turned red. He had recorded only one thing, “she gave me a hug.” That is what mattered.