Nearly a year after a life-altering surgery, former Wright State student Savannah Olaker is still coping with, and learning anew, the things she lost. Namely, memories of herself and the people close to her.
It was as if my life was on a chalkboard, and someone just threw a bucket of water on it and washed it away,” Olaker said.
The months leading up to her scheduled surgery in April of 2014 were punctuated with bouts of intense internal pain and frequent visits to her GYN at the Indu and Raj Soin Medical Center in Beavercreek, OH.
After undergoing multiple tests, an ultrasound, shots and blood sampling it was determined that Olaker, at the time 19, may have stage 2 endometriosis, a fairly common disease in which tissue that normally grows inside the uterus grows outside it.
But according to Olaker, “The tricky thing about endometriosis is that you can’t simply see it with an ultrasound, so they could only guess that endometriosis was the cause of all my suffering. The only way to diagnose it is with surgery.”
The surgery could either occur in the middle of April or the end of May. Olaker couldn’t bear the growing pains, however, and opted for the April date, which happened to fall one week before Final exams at WSU. The surgery, a Laparoscopy & Hysteroscopy combination, would be on April 17.
“I was studying for finals while also attempting to cope with the pain I was experiencing,” Olaker said. For her it was excruciating. No matter what medication she took for the pain, she always felt it. The only way she could escape it was to sleep.
“And I knew I couldn’t always do that while trying to go to school full-time and working 30 hours a week on top of that. I felt like I couldn’t focus on anything.”
And so, a surgery was the only certain answer.
“I’d never had a surgery as serious as this, so I was very nervous,” Olaker said. “I was nervous about the IV, the hospital stay, but mostly that I would wake up during the surgery.”
Olaker voiced these concerns and fears to her anesthesiologist moments before her surgery was to begin, who reassured and relaxed her with medication.
Immediately before, she recalled a room full of faces: family and friends had come to show their support for her.
“They started to wheel me away in my bed,” said Olaker. “I remember squeezing my mom’s hand, exchanging ‘I love you’s and telling each other we would see one another later.”
Then she went under.
The surgery in Raj Soin lasted between one and two hours. Olaker did end up having the endometriosis her GYN had speculated was causing her so much pain. Additionally the surgery revealed an ovarian cyst, diagnosing her with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome as well. It was removed. Overall, the operation was meant to be minor and noninvasive.
The next thing Olaker recalled was waking up.
“A nurse came over and started telling me where I was, that I just had surgery, but I didn’t understand anything she was saying,” Olaker said, still slightly in tears remembering it. “They kept asking me my name and I just couldn’t answer. I didn’t know.”
Then a woman came in, but Olaker could not place who she was and cried. “I asked her who she was and she said, ‘Savannah, I’m your mom. Do you not know who I am?’”
She recalled beeps, people rushing around, blood pressure spikes and an anesthesiologist shouting for her to “shut up and relax.” Everything then went dark again.
After waking the second time, Olaker remembered little things: neurology tests, CAT scans and more blood work. She also remembered people coming in who told her they were her family. The woman who called herself Savannah’s mother was requesting all visitors wait until her daughter was more stable and was “introduced” to her own family.
Among Olaker’s first questions toward her family were: “Do I have a dad? Am I married? Do I have kids?”
“I was terrified,” Olaker said. “I know she said she was my mom, but I didn’t know that for sure. I just had to trust that this woman was my mom, and that my family was my family.” She recalled her younger sister Veronica running out of the room after being met with Olaker’s blank stare.
“That was the best I could do, was give a blank look,” Olaker said. “I couldn’t help it. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know any of these people. They were new to me, and I was afraid.”
A neurologist was consulted to help determine the extent of Olaker’s affliction, and luckily CAT and MRI scans were negative in finding serious lasting issues. Multiple medical opinions were obtained, which varied on a length of a month to a year as a recovery guesstimate, that it would have to “take its course.”
“They said it’s really uncertain as to the cause,” said Olaker’s mother, Shawn. Doctors said recovery could take a few months or even a year. Nobody truly knew.
The days following the surgery were difficult. Olaker, with the help of people who claimed to be her big sister and father, attempted to try walking again.
“I knew what people meant when they said things. I retained all my motor skills,” Olaker said. “I just forgot…people. My personal memories.”
Olaker, afflicted with what is called Post-op Amnesia, also didn’t know who she herself was. It took her days just to get her own name down. All memories of her life before the surgery were gone.
Theories on the causes for Olaker’s amnesia include a stroke, possible lack of oxygen, or perhaps that the large amounts of medication given to Savannah pre-surgery reacted negatively with her brain and body.
Through her research, Olaker has found plenty of people who have experienced similar head traumas and memory loss issues. But those, according to her, could be associated with Alzheimer’s.
“She was terrified. Even when she came home she was in a child-like state,” Shawn said.
“On the car ride home, she turned and asked me, ‘Can I ask you a question?’” Shawn said. “She asked, ‘Can I trust you?’ And I said, I’m your mother, of course you can.” Savannah said she asked because she wasn’t yet sure, since she had met her mother only three days ago.
The homecoming was a surreal experience for the Olakers. While it was a place of familiarity and comfort for the others, for Savannah it was as if entering a stranger’s house.
“She was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my house? I live here? Can I stay here?’” Shawn said. “She kept asking us that. ‘Can I stay here? Can I stay with you?’”
Shawn mentioned her youngest daughter Veronica. The hardest thing Veronica had ever done was to give her own sister a tour of their house.
After Savannah got home, her mother tried to keep her calmed and prevent any feeling of overwhelming. Shawn scheduled for certain friends to come on certain days, spacing it so a friend could visit each day. “And they would just sit and either paint, or tell her stories. She has some amazing friends and family,” Shawn said.
Olaker did retain a few skills from before the surgery, like her ability to play guitar.
“My friend Sam, my mom and my grandma were all up with me in my room,” Olaker recalls. “Sammy has always been good at guitar. He picked up my acoustic and started picking, then asked if I wanted to try.” It was awkward at first, then Sam put Savannah’s fingers where they needed to go. “And I just played. It was muscle memory.”
Olaker could recall how to perform other actions. Six years of golfing came back by June. Seven years of swimming experience returned to her quickly, and she was swimming laps by July.
Her mother Shawn was also impressed with her retention rates.
“The Monday after she came home, one of her best friends from high school came over, and they were in the kitchen and making cupcakes,” Shawn said. “I walked into the kitchen and asked who set the oven, since the one we have is really complicated. And Savannah said that she herself did it. So she just remembered that without even thinking about it.”
And if she was given her phone, Olaker could navigate through it without being told where to go.
Things like this, along with her ability to read and understand language and the meanings of words, remained intact. But some things ended up changing.
“Her personality was completely and totally different,” Shawn said. “At first she was just very matter-of-fact, extremely blunt, and a little mean. Whenever she said something that was very to-the-point, she’d say, ‘remember, I have no filter,’ for a long time.”
“Yeah,” Savannah added, “I still use that sometimes.”
Olaker’s tastes changed too. Her favorite color was suddenly purple, to the dismay of the lime-green furniture and walls of her room. Red Lobster, previously her favorite restaurant, was met with “Ew, I don’t like this.”
Olaker recalled having dreams that she could paint.
“She woke up one day while in the hospital and said she needed stuff to paint. She said, ‘I just had a dream. I can paint!’” Shawn said. Three days after the surgery, when the Olakers had requested to return to their home, Shawn purchased materials for her daughter to paint with, despite having no ability or desire to paint prior to the surgery. She has since enjoyed the activity with a passion and even sells a few of her works online.
The Olakers and close friends aided Savannah tremendously during the months that followed.
“She had some really good friends, and other people that tried to take advantage of her. They tried to make her memories into what they wanted it to be, and not into what they were,” Shawn said.
Olaker began redeveloping herself and her relationship to others, who she gradually remembered as well. Her mother, a photographer on the side, showed her pictures and videos of her life and helped her reconnect to those memories much more quickly.
When asked what percentage of her life Olaker can currently remember, “I’d say about 60 percent.”
Things did, and still do, come back to her. “We’ve found that if someone starts a story about me or people I was with, I can sometimes finish it. Sometimes just talking to old friends can trigger certain memories. It’s quite fascinating,” Olaker said.
It took months for Olaker to be okay on her own. “One day, I remember mom bought me makeup, but I didn’t know how to use it,” she recalled. “So she showed me how. And my grandma helped me to style my hair a certain way. Before my surgery, just like everyone else does, I had a system.”
She didn’t have that anymore. “I didn’t know what I was doing. Luckily, mom was able to take off work, so she did that for me for three or four months. It was a lot of redeveloping. It really was like I was a little kid. I had to relearn things.”
Olaker still gets anxiety when asked a question she feels she can’t answer. One particular instance occurred after her mother asked what year Olaker began to play guitar.
“I started crying because I didn’t know,” Olaker said. “Normally I don’t cry, since usually I’m calm about it. Because I’ve found, in my year of being alive, that if I don’t know the answer to something, mom does. So if she asks me a question that I don’t know the answer to, it really freaks me out.”
Today, nearly one year later, Olaker, 20, is living life again with full independence. She has redeveloped powerful friendships, lives with her family in Greenfield, OH, and works as a Pharmacy Technician at Stewart’s Pharmacy. She was no longer interested in pursuing a business degree at Wright State, thinking her energies and interests are better-suited elsewhere for the time being.
Overall, Olaker says, she is happier with the person she is now than the person she was before.
“I feel like I make more sound decisions. Even coming out of my surgery and being as unstable as I was, I feel that this version of myself now, a year later, is more stable than I was before the surgery,” Olaker said.
“This has been a journey for all of us, coping and dealing with the unknown,” Shawn Olaker said. “We’ve moved on with our lives. We just live for today, and we take every challenge together as a family. If something comes up that she wants to talk about, we talk about it. And if she doesn’t, we move on. We don’t dwell on it.”
Savannah Olaker plans to write and illustrate a book on her experiences.
“When we’d take Savannah to see her doctor, he would sit and ask her questions just like you’re doing. ‘Savannah, tell me about this, tell me about that,’” said Shawn.
Shawn continued, “The doctor said, ‘Honestly, I’m not doing anything to help you, I’m just intrigued by you.’ We had joked about it. ‘Savannah, you need to write a book about this and illustrate it,’ we said.”
“I would not wish this upon my worst enemy,” Savannah said. “It was terrible, especially at first. Very scary and traumatizing. A lot of people wish for a kind of reset button for life like this. But you forget both the bad and the good.”
“I’ve had to relive all those good and bad things again. The bad parts suck, but they’re still a part of what makes you who you are.”
But Savannah says she would not want to do it again.