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Internships and Fellowships

Library Experience Inspires Intern Who Suffered Total Memory Loss

By Mark Hartsell

Su Meck remembers nothing about her wedding day. She can’t recall her childhood or the births of two of her children.

An accident more than 20 years ago robbed Su of her memories of what was a full life – and of the skills she needed to go on living.

Su no longer could remember how to read and write or even how to tie her shoes, much less anything she learned as a student at Ohio Wesleyan University.

“There is lot of background knowledge that to this day I still don’t have,” says Su, now 45. “I don’t know stuff a lot of people just know.”

An internship at the Library of Congress last fall helped Su discover how much she wanted that to change. “I learned so much,” Su says. “I learned a lot about myself, just how inquisitive I really am. I never thought of myself that way. The inquisitiveness that I got there was just something that felt so new, and I loved it.”

• • • •

Su met Jim in college. They got married, moved to Fort Worth, Texas, and had two kids.

“We thought we’d get married and everything would be perfect,” Su says. “We’d go to Texas and live happily ever after. Didn’t quite work out that way.”

One day in 1988, Su playfully lifted her 6-month-old son, Patrick, toward the ceiling of their home.

Patrick’s body brushed against a ceiling fan and unhooked it from its anchor. The fan fell and struck Su in the head, knocking her unconscious.

When Su awoke from a coma a week later, every familiar face seemed to be that of a stranger: She no longer recognized her own husband, children or mom and dad.

The injury left Su with complete retrograde amnesia: She couldn’t – and still can’t – remember anything about her life before the accident.

“There’s a big old black hole there,” Su says.

Memory wasn’t the only thing missing: Su no longer could perform the basic tasks of daily life. She had to learn to walk again, to use a fork and spoon, to read and write.

Back home, a faulty short-term memory made managing a household and raising children difficult.

Su never could remember, for example, where things were stored. She’d leave the kitchen cabinets open all the time so she could see everything in its place. For awhile, she prepared only the meal she’d learned at the hospital – tuna.

“I am amazed the children survived, quite frankly,” Su says. “I was the most inconsistent parent. I don’t remember being parented, so I didn’t really know what I was doing most of the time.”

The family relocated to Gaithersburg, Md., in 1991. Su gave birth to a daughter the next year – the only one of her children Su remembers from birth.

With her three children – Benjamin, Patrick and Kassidy – around college age, Su decided in 2007 to begin taking classes at Montgomery College.

Last year, Su applied for an internship with the Paul Peck Humanities Institute at the college, which places students at the Smithsonian Institution, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Library of Congress.

She got the internship and in September began work on the fifth floor of the James Madison Building.

Mary Wedgewood, a senior cataloger in the Music Division, had a major project in mind for the new intern: cataloging about 2,500 pieces of Civil War sheet music.

Wedgewood knew nothing of Su’s situation but quickly sensed something wasn’t right.

Su, who had never learned much about computers, would retype the same, long subject headings over and over rather than just copy and paste the text.

Wedgewood sat Su down for a frank talk: You can’t type “United States--History--Civil War, 1861–1865--Songs and music” 2,557 times. Is there a problem?

Su explained that she’d been in an accident 22 years ago and lost her memory. She didn’t tell her everything right away. Mary learned the rest later.

The work went slowly after their talk, but it went.

“There were a lot of cognitive leaps,” Wedgewood says.

Says Su: “Mary was incredible. She was incredibly patient with me.”

At the same time, the Library opened new worlds for Su.

Wedgewood encouraged her to explore: Attend a lecture, see an exhibit or tour a division every day during lunch, she told her.

Su did. “It was great,” she says.

The cataloging itself took her mind to new places.

She’d look up something that captured her interest, then follow a tangent to one related subject after another, as if she were trying to make up for all the years of education she no longer could remember.

“I was so off-topic so much of the time because I was just so interested in learning as much as I could,” Su says.

That slowed the work further, and Su wasn’t able to complete the project before the internship ended – other catalogers chipped in to finish it.

But Su left inspired. She expressed interest in working as a librarian – and in doing so at the Library of Congress.

In May, she graduated from Montgomery College with an associate degree in music.

Su and Jim now are in the process of moving to Northampton, Mass., where this fall she will study music again at Smith College. She is seriously considering pursuing a master’s degree in library science.

Su has gotten a lot of attention lately – a happy switch for someone who for years kept her experiences hidden.

She was the subject of a story in The Washington Post in May and appeared on the “Today” show in June. “The View” called. She has a book deal.

“It’s been freeing. I didn’t realize how much I was keeping inside,” Su says. “I didn’t talk about it, and we didn’t talk about it in the family. I was kind of always embarrassed, and I was always trying to appear normal and sort of knowing in the back of my head I wasn’t.

“Most everyone else knew how to tie their shoes, and I didn’t always know how to do that. How many people can say it was their kids who taught them to tie their shoes?”

Wedgewood, meanwhile, is delighted by the way things have turned out and the possibilities for the future.

“It’s Su’s chapter,” she says. “It’s Su’s chapter.”

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