After crash, Minnesota man suffers amnesia

ADA, Minn. - After 12 years with her husband, Rebecca Christensen is looking for him again - even though he's right there beside her. The problem? Her husband, Rob Strand, suffers from amnesia. "He sounds the same, he looks the same, he uses uten...

Rebecca Christensen stands with her children
Rebecca Christensen stands with her children, Alex, 11, from left, Julaine, 5 months, Chris, 8, and Oliver, 5, outside their home Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, in Ada, Minn. Her husband, Rob Strand, has amnesia from an accident on Sept. 13. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

ADA, Minn. - After 12 years with her husband, Rebecca Christensen is looking for him again - even though he's right there beside her.

The problem? Her husband, Rob Strand, suffers from amnesia.

"He sounds the same, he looks the same, he uses utensils the same - but it's not him," the Ada woman said this week. "He's there, but he's not there. It's like a horrible, weird version of 'Where's Waldo.' "

It's been like this since Sept. 13 - Friday the 13th. That's when Strand, 36, was in a single-car crash just outside Moorhead as he was driving to work at the U.S. Bank call center in Fargo.

Strand remembers looking down at the steering wheel right before his car hit the guardrail. Doctors at Sanford Medical Center's trauma center in Fargo didn't find any injuries, but when he woke up in the hospital he was confused about why his vision was blurry.


"He's worn glasses since the second grade," Christensen said.

Strand didn't remember about his glasses. He also didn't remember his wife, their four children, his parents, his siblings or his job. He didn't even remember his own name.

His sister, Rayli Heier, said many of Strand's preferences have also changed since the accident, as if the traits that made up his personality were facts that could be forgotten.

Baseball, a sport he played and loved to watch, is suddenly boring.

Guns N' Roses, his favorite band, has no appeal.

He likes onions.

Looking at his own Facebook page, Strand might not recognize himself in his own profile.

"It was hard to hear," Heier said. "We're just glad he's here to make new memories with."


Strand's children, who range in age from 11 years old to a little more than 5 months, aren't comfortable with the new version of their father yet, the women said. They used to watch "Duck Dynasty" on TV with him every week. Now, Strand doesn't even know what the show is.

Strand has been home in Ada since Friday, and in that time, family members have shown him pictures of themselves. Their names are written on the back, like flashcards a student would use to cram for a test.

Sanford doctors recommended a low-stimulus environment at first, Christensen said. But it's slow going. After too much information, too much trying to remember, Strand reports a tingling around his nose and brow line. He gets dizzy and has to rest.

They were hoping his neuropsychiatric appointment Wednesday would give them more answers.

"He understands and I think that's almost worse," Christensen said. "He has a complete understanding of what's missing."

There are parts of Strand still there, even though he can't recall courting his wife, the births of their four children or the first words and steps of their kids.

He is still good with numbers. He is still funny, although harder to talk with - something Christensen isn't sure to attribute to a change in disposition or discomfort with family members turned strangers.

Strand also hasn't set foot outside their home in Ada, said his mother, Jayne Zacher. Of all the unsettling experiences he's had since the accident, that prospect has been the most frightening for her son, who she describes as seeming "kind of lost."


"In a small community where everyone kind of knows him, he's afraid he won't know them," she said.

It was one of a few times Zacher allowed tears to overtake her calm, deep voice. As she puts it, "You have to hold it together for the grandkids," whose names her son appears to be memorizing.

Christiansen said her mother-in-law's help around the house has been a source of comfort since the accident, as has the outpouring of support from friends and family who know what happened to Strand.

She wasn't happy at first when Heier established a website designed to collect donations for Strand's medical expenses. She and her husband are private people, she said, whose social lives revolve primarily around their children.

In some ways, that makes what has happened to Strand all the more cruel. The members of his nuclear family are as unknown to him as people on the other side of the globe.

And his wife doesn't quite recognize Strand, either.

After meeting through mutual friends, it took him weeks to work up the nerve to talk to her. She was surprised they fell in love. They were almost total opposites. He's shy; she's loud and aggressive.

These days, Christiansen admits that while she's glad he chose to trust that she is his wife, being with him is a lot like starting over.

Amnesia cases like Strand's are rare

The kind of amnesia Rob Strand's family is describing is rare, said a Sanford Health neuropsychologist, and finding out whether his memory is likely to come back depends a lot on discovering its cause.

Dr. Lindsay Hines is not treating Strand, who was set to be seen for the first time Wednesday at Sanford neurology.

Amnesia can be caused by a disease, such as Alzheimer's; by an injury, like in a car accident; or by a stroke, she said.

The center of the brain that stores memory is called the hippocampus, and it's located deep in the temporal lobe, where it's somewhat protected. When the hippocampus is damaged, those stored memories won't come back, Hines said.

Amnesia can also have a psychological cause, such as when someone has survived a war, a rape or another traumatic event like a car accident. The brain will shut down access to those and other memories in an effort to protect itself so the patient can continue functioning in daily life.

Doctors used to think it was better to unlock those memories, but now, the thinking has changed.

"Many psychotherapists would say, 'If the brain's protecting itself, keep it there,' " Hines said.

Sometimes people fake amnesia, she said, but they don't typically do it unless they stand to gain something from it. The benefits of malingering can be as simple as the extra love, attention and support victims of illness receive, and that behavior can be tough to separate out from a psychological or emotional problem, she said.

The type of amnesia Strand's family describes is called retrograde amnesia. There is another kind called proactive amnesia that Hines has treated. "That's the person stuck in the same day, every day," she said.

That amnesia is the kind that prevents the brain from making new memories. One patient Hines saw described waking up and being shocked at his appearance in the mirror 10 years after the onset of the amnesia.

If retrograde amnesia is caused by a head injury, there can be improvements up to two years after the injury, Hines said. "But a lot of time there's psychological injury, which can make the symptoms worse."

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