Amnesia Sufferer Scott Bolzan

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: October 2011
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Awaking in a Scottsdale ER, having been diagnosed with a concussion, he didn’t recognize the pretty blonde at his bedside: Joan, his wife of 25 years. He couldn’t recall family, friends, his NFL or aviation careers, his way around the house in Gilbert, the President-elect, the exact meaning of “wife” – or much else. Doctors said his memory should return in a week.

It never did. As Scott writes in My Life, Deleted, which hits bookshelves October 4 (HarperOne, $26), the question soon became: “Who the hell was I?”

He lost no motor skills; he still walks and talks with ease. He has a no-nonsense manner, quick on the uptake. He also has severe retrograde amnesia. To this day, Scott’s first 46 years – a lifetime of memories – remain lost.

It was a lot to lose. Born in Chicago, he attended Northern Illinois University on a full athletic scholarship. He played offensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns, but a foot injury halted his NFL career in 1986. He and Joan had Grant, now 22, and daughter Taylor, now 19. After moving to Arizona in 1993, Scott launched a charter-jet company that flew the first heart used for transplant to the Mayo Clinic in Arizona. The Bolzans owned a half dozen cars, a pair of JetSkis and a 46-foot yacht at an Oceanside, California, hideaway.

It might as well have happened to somebody else. It took Scott six weeks to admit to Joan that he didn’t remember her at all.

About 1.7 million Americans suffer traumatic brain injury every year, including some 50,000 Arizonans, according to government statistics. “There always is a lapse of memory when you suffer a concussion,” says neurologist Javier Cardenas of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix (who has met Scott but has not treated him). Usually, the lapse doesn’t last long. Cardenas has seen “just a handful” of extreme cases like Scott’s.

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CT or MRI brain scans usually pinpoint physical damage, Cardenas says, but Scott says his CT and MRI turned up nothing. He wondered if “the Swiss cheese of my brain” was due to mental illness. In Scottsdale, six months post-fall, he underwent a scan called SPECT (single positron emitted computed tomography), which shows blood flow through the brain. It revealed that Scott’s frontal and temporal lobes – where the brain files long-term memories – are now getting far less blood than they should.

To see the damage was closure. “I figured that I couldn’t wait any longer to live my life. I wasn’t going to get those memories back,” Scott says from L.A., where he and Joan were gearing up for the book launch. Finding himself “a 46-year-old virgin,” he writes about his rediscovery of marital sex, and he says he fell in love with “my Joan of Arc” all over again. “I’ve only known Joan one way for two and a half years. So it’s been pretty easy for me to fall in love again, where it’s been more difficult for Joan.”

Meetings and calls with his parents, two sisters, friends, and business and NFL colleagues have usually gained Scott useful information – and sometimes emotional support and reconnection. But they’ve never helped retrieve his lost first-hand memories.

Shown on a Nightline segment watching his own wedding on video, he asked Joan why the guests throw rice. He wondered what the deal was with Halloween and Christmas. He learned the days of the week from a TV jingle. A former steak-and-potatoes guy, today Scott says, “It makes me nauseous to look at meat.” Puzzled by the flag-with-eagle tattoo on his body, he needed Joan to explain that he got it after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

He found that his son has been struggling for years with heroin and pills. The relationship remains strained at best. Scott also learned from a newspaper message-board item that a falling-out with a business partner led him to the ill-advised move of withholding aircraft logbooks; he plea-bargained to a felony to avoid court over theft allegations in 2001.

Yet Scott values his new perspective. “I’m able to look at the world with a fresh set of eyes, because I don’t have any preconceived notions,” he says. He continues to view the world with wonder. “I am constantly amazed at the fighting in the Middle East, over what seems to be, in my mind, senseless things. And then also I see how good the world is  – when there’s national tragedies such as the fires, the willingness of people to help.”

That’s been the upside. The downside has included severe chronic headaches, insomnia, depression, diminished focus, a series of seizures that fortunately passed, and partial blindness in his right eye. And Joan continues to spend evenings poring over photo albums and home movies, filling in the blanks and hoping to retrieve lost recollections. “This is no fun,” Scott says. “There’s been a lot of really dark days.”

Humor helps. Stepping out of her usual protective mode, Joan says, “I did tell him that he enjoyed chick flicks. But he was convinced in his own mind that ‘I can’t possibly want to watch Real Housewives. It just can’t be true.’” 

Scott also wonders why his old self needed so much stuff. To make ends meet, he liquidated the personal watercraft, most of the cars, and enough pricey timepieces to accessorize an octopus. He’s put aviation on standby – “In fact I’m kind of afraid to fly,” he admits – to launch a speaking career with Joan, advocating for brain-injury survivors and their families. Among other things, Scott notes that the U.S. must now deal with brain-trauma victims returning from Iraq and Afghanistan (at least 320,000 head injuries so far, says neurologist David Brody, co-author of a recent New England Journal of Medicine study on war-related head injuries.)

A favorite cause of the Bolzans is the Brain Injury Association of Arizona in Phoenix, where Scott serves on the board. “I can’t tell you the number of times we had a survivor connect with us because of Joan and Scott,” says BIAA executive director Mattie Cummins, who was moved that one of Scott’s first solo trips outside the house was to her office.

Once, he popped Percocets “like they were Skittles,” but now Scott takes the painkiller only once or twice a month. His health is better than at any time since that December morning, he says. But what surprises him most is the amount of missing information.

About a month after the accident, about a dozen memories from his early childhood flashed through his mind – a swimming pool, a chain-link fence, a kid’s bike at the bottom of seven steps that led up to a metal screen door.

“Those,” he adds, “were the only glimpses of my previous life that I’ve ever had.”