Battling a Blinded Memory

Monday, November 15, 2010 - 9:49am

Visual amnesia forces teacher to rely on photographs to navigate through her life.

If you sit in Holly Winter's classroom, you'll find a woman who will range from playing songs on the guitar to reciting poetry from memory.

Yet, she can't remember her students' faces.

"21 years ago, I was in a car accident and I flat lined after the car accident," said Winter, a fifth and sixth grade teacher at the Kunsberg School in Denver.

Winter says her heart stopped and oxygen stopped flowing to her brain for 10 minutes causing permanent damage and impacting certain functions of her memory.

"I have this visual amnesia," Winter said. "I can't remember anything that I look at."

She can't remember the colors on a beautiful fall day. She can't recognize the look of her mother's face. Winter has to look in the mirror every morning.

"Getting older is easy," Winter said while laughing, "because I don't remember what I look like."

In Winter's world, a picture is worth way more than a thousand words.

It is literally a page of her memory.

It is her only way of connecting images with her experiences.

"I use photographs to visually remember my life," Winter said.

Her apartment is filled with thousands of photographs.

They're posted on the walls of her kitchen.

They're contained in dozens of albums stored in her living room.

"Without the photo, all I have is a story," Winter said. "I remember the feeling. I remember being there."

She can also remember information.

"When I see a student, I may not recognize that student visually, I go straight to my list," Winter said.

Winter quickly goes through lists in her brain of a person's physical characteristics like hair color, eye color, body language, height, voice, etc.

"I look at the attributes of the student and I say, 'Oh, I know who that is!'" Winter said.

She also has photographs posted around her classroom.

Students have pictures of their faces on their journals.

Winter has large name tags on each of her students' desks.

"What I've decided is at work, it's my job to be so proficient that I'm seamless," Winter said.

That's how she functions in life, as well.

"We always joke about, I don't remember a friend's bad hair day," Winter said.

She says a haircut can really throw her off.

When Winter throws a party, her friends greet her and recite their names even though she might have known them for years.

"I am always living life in the moment, visually, because I can't refer to my past," Winter said.

Her condition is so rare that doctors told Winter she might be the only one in the world currently afflicted with it.

However, a 1998 medical study showed at that time there were 11 recorded cases over the years of patients who suffered from some sort of visual amnesia across the United States.

"I keep hoping there will be someone else and when I find another person I'm gonna start a support group," Winter said with a smile.

She now looks at her condition as a gift.

"I don't get tired of my clothes. I don't get tired of my wall hangings," Winter said.

She walks the same way around her neighborhood to guarantee that she can find her way back.

"Every time I step out of my apartment everything looks brand new," Winter said.

She does need help with her wardrobe.

"My friend Theresa takes me clothing shopping most of the time, because I will buy the same clothes," Winter said.

For the most part, Winter says she has figured out how to live her life with no visual memory.

"I feel normal. I feel like what I have makes who I am," Winter said. "I do feel like it's still evolving. I think as I figure out where the seams are - my job is to polish them down even more."

Winter says one of the best compliments she receives is when people think she is lying about her condition.

"It's so great when people call me a liar and they go, 'You don't have that condition,' I go, 'Thank you so much. I really appreciate it,'" Winter said.

Winter says she has gotten so good at coping with her condition that she takes pride in trying to help others.

That's why she says teaching at the Kunsberg School is the perfect job for her.

"One of the reasons it's really great for me to be here at Kunsberg School is I understand kids going through medical issues," Winter said.

Kunsberg is a part of National Jewish Hospital in Denver.

She won't let kids use their ailments as crutches or excuses.

"It is a place where I absolutely fit in," Winter said.

She also runs a website where she blogs about the adventures of her travels around the world.

"I like that people find my life inspiring," Winter said. "Honestly, it's just my life. This is the way I live. So, if people find that inspiring that's great."

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