Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The man who didn't recognize his wife

Thanks to an article in the August 30 New Yorker, I might have finally discovered an explanation for one of the most baffling things I've ever seen.

Oliver Sacks wrote a story for The New Yorker about his lifelong battle with prosopagnosia. Put simply, it's an inability to recognize faces. The 77-year-old Sacks is best known for his work with people suffering neurological disorders. His book Awakenings was turned into a movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro. In his article, Sacks writes about how his life is affected by his struggle to recognize faces, even the faces of his family and closest friends. He tells one story about attending a meeting with his assistant Kate, who had worked with him for six years. He sat down next to her and ignored her. Finally, after five minutes Kate said, "I was wondering how long it would take you to recognize me." Another time, he failed to recognize his psychiatrist, a few minutes after he'd just had a session with the doctor.

So, to the baffling scene. It happened in 2002, in the Mankato Barnes & Noble. I stood near the cafe in the rear of the store. I was about 10 feet away from a woman who looked to be in her fifties. She started falling backward and I thought she had just lost her balance. But she fell to the ground, hit a nearby table and went into convulsions. It was a scary scene, especially when you're utterly incapable of helping with the situation. The basic first aid skills I learned in seventh through 10th grade were useless that night, since there was obviously no need for a cravat bandage or a crude tourniquet. Two women who had been standing next to her crouched down to help. One held the woman's head, trying to keep it still. I told a cafe worker to call 911.

By that time a small crowd had gathered around the fallen woman. After about a minute, a middle-aged man approached and said he was a doctor. How comforting is it hearing those three words - "I'm a doctor" - during a moment like that? He started doing doctor-type things to the lady and told the other women who had been helping to look through her purse for any medications.

The convulsions continued. At one point the doctor felt her neck and announced, "She has a pulse and is breathing." This seemed a tad theatrical, but was reassuring. The woman who had been searching the victim's purse asked around, wondering if anyone had been with her before she fell. No one replied. Someone told the manager to announce the woman's name over the speaker system to see if she had a companion.

One of the helpers finally found her name and phone number in her checkbook. "It's Catherine," she said.

A second later, the doctor stopped working and loudly said, "Oh my god! It's my wife! Cathy, Cathy, Cathy! It's my wife!"

One of the women helping said, "Your wife," and everyone in the area thought the same thing: What? He had been working on the woman for about three minutes. He didn't recognize her? He kept repeating, "My wife, it's my wife." Finally an ambulance arrived. The workers loaded her onto a stretcher and took her away. Before he left, the man called his child on his cell.

"Hey, it's dad," he said. "Mom is sick, something's happened. We're at the bookstore." He then told us this had never happened before but she was on some blood-pressure medication. Obviously I felt terrible for the woman and the man, especially since it sounded like it wasn't the type of seizure that might be associated with epilepsy, which could provide an explanation for the frightening scene. But still...how did he not recognize his wife?

At the time I had some theories and I asked my friends for theirs. One speculated that the man had some mental issues and might have imposed on the scene, pretending to be a doctor and her wife. Seemed far-fetched, although maybe it would explain the dramatic announcements: I'm a doctor. She's breathing!

Another proposed a theory based on watching too many episodes of Dateline and 48 Hours Mystery. He speculated that, since the man was a doctor, he gave her medicine that made her collapse. Perhaps as part of insurance fraud or a murder plot. Then he could act concerned and say, hey, look, I tried to help. And he was so focused on helping, so involved with the work, he didn't recognize her. Seemed like a theory Jack McCoy might buy, but no one else.

My theories?

* They arrived at the store separately. If they went together, it seems even more unbelievable that he wouldn't have recognized her. She was wearing glasses, but they did come off when she fell. So, they arrive separately. Then, perhaps doctors get so involved with helping the "patient" they don't really see who it is, they just see a person in trouble. So only when he heard that her name was Catherine did it hit him that he was working on his own wife. Still seems hard to believe.

* It was a scene for a wacky prank show, or one of those 20/20 style shows where they set up unsuspecting people to see how they react in emergencies. As a social experiment. Like, will three strangers help a woman who collapses at a Barnes & Noble, or are people so concerned with their own lives they'll let her fall and convulse while reading Tom Clancy? Not my best theory.

* My most realistic scenario: They're divorced, have been for several years. He hadn't seen her in awhile. In that type of situation, once he did recognize her, he wouldn't shout, "Oh my god, my ex-wife!" You'd probably still shout, "my wife."

Still, it remained confounding. I wanted an explanation, but thought it might be in bad taste to chase after the ambulance. It's confused me for eight years.

But now, maybe there's an answer. Maybe the doctor suffered from prosopagnosia, face blindness. It seems plausible - but not as intriguing as a murder plot.

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