An auto accident wiped away Nathalie Nazario’s memories. But it also gave the Seminole State College student an extraordinary will to succeed.
SEMINOLE STATE COLLEGE
The man and woman standing by the hospital bed said they were her parents. She decided to take their word for it.
“It was strange. But you just felt it,” says Nathalie Nazario, 19, a Seminole State College student who woke up the day after an auto accident in August of last year with no memory of her prior life. “When I saw most of my friends, it was like ‘nice meeting you,’ or whatever. But when I would hear my mom’s voice or my dad’s voice, I can’t say I would remember their voices, but it would feel soothing. I didn’t have to think twice.”
Nathalie’s mother, Waleska Nazario, explains that Nathalie had just called her cell phone after an interview with Chase Bank, to say she’d gotten the job.
“She was very excited. We made plans to meet at a restaurant to celebrate. Nathalie thought she’d ended the call before she drove off, but her phone was still on speaker. I was driving her brother, John-Alex, to his baseball practice, and we were laughing because Nathalie didn’t know we were listening. She was singing at the top of her lungs, so happy.”
Joy turned to terror at the sound of a tremendous crash.
Nathalie was stopped at a red light when the driver behind her, who was texting, dropped her phone and, fumbling for it, hit the gas instead of the brake. Her car hit Natalie’s at about 50 mph, pushing it into oncoming traffic where it was hit again, this time from the front. The impact dislocated Nathalie’s right ankle, knee, hip and shoulder.
Waleska heard her daughter scream and called to her, but no answer came. Then she heard a woman’s voice say, “Don’t move. You’re trapped.” The phone went dead. Waleska redialed frantically twice, and finally the woman who had cautioned Nathalie to be still saw the word ‘MOM’ on the ringing phone’s screen, and answered. She gave Waleska the location of the accident, and the distraught mother raced to the scene.
Nathalie was already on a stretcher and didn’t recognize her mother. “Who are you people? What happened? Why are you doing this to me?” she shrieked.
Three months before her accident, Nathalie Nazario starred in a television commercial for Seminole State College, and posed for a billboard as well (above). Today, she has no memory of doing either.
She was hospitalized for 11 days for treatment of her physical injuries, which included a concussion. When she awoke the morning after the accident, however, it was apparent that Nathalie had more to worry about. “I knew my name, but not the year, or who the president was,” Nathalie says. She looked at her petite body and decided she was a cheerleader in high school. When told she was in college, her reaction was, “Crap! I missed high school!”
Waleska says there was no bruising on Nathalie’s head, so a psychiatrist was consulted. She did not know her own dog, who had been her constant companion, and she thought she had a brother who was 2 years old (he was 13). Going into her room for the first time, “It was like I was looking through somebody else’s stuff,’’ Nathalie says. “And looking in my closet every morning was like going shopping... At one point I just stopped completely, and I wouldn’t look through anything more because it felt like I was digging through someone else’s belongings.”
Nathalie has what’s known as retrograde amnesia. She retained cognitive skills; she knew how to walk, talk, write and read. But her emotional memories were a clean slate. “As clean as a white sheet of paper,” she says. There is no memory of the accident or her life before it. She doesn’t remember her likes and dislikes, and has found that some of them have changed overnight. “My mom says I used to love beans, but I think they are entirely gross. The same thing with milk. To save my life, I cannot drink it.”
Some people have told her that they would like to be in her shoes, to have all their bad memories erased. “But what doesn’t click in their minds,” says Nathalie, “is that I lost all my good ones, too. I don’t remember my high school graduation, or things that people want to remember, like my first day of college.” She grins and corrects herself. “Well, now I have a new first day of college.’’
A friend from high school, Madison McGahan, says Nathalie is determined to succeed despite any setbacks caused by her injuries. “The first thing she asks someone who knew her before the accident is, ‘Tell me a funny story we shared,’ ” McGahan says. When anyone asks Nathalie her age, McGahan says, she counts from her “second birthday,” the day she woke up in the hospital.
At first, Natalie’s doctors and campus counselors told her she wouldn’t be able to return to classes at Seminole State’s Oviedo campus when the fall session started, a scarce three weeks after the accident. “Not really knowing myself, or remembering what I was like, I just kind of felt that was not me. I don’t just sit back and say okay, fine, I’ll take time to heal.” They told her she couldn’t manage any of the four classes she had picked out in her declared major, health sciences. So she said, “Fine. I’ll take three.” They told her she would struggle and not make good grades. She ended up finishing the fall semester with straight A's.
Kyle Sellers, another high school friend, says this intense focus on academics is something new for Nathalie. She had wanted to be a physical therapist before the accident, because her mother thought it would be a good career. “But the accident convinced her that life is short, and you should live it to the fullest and do what you want to do, not live to please others,” Seller says. “So she changed her major to early childhood education and works in daycare now. She wants to be a teacher.”
“School was a hard battle,” Nathalie says. “There were days when I wanted to quit, but I refused. I couldn’t let them be right when they said I couldn’t do it. I thought I could do it, so I did.”
She’s proud of her progress but doesn’t want to be known as the girl who suffers from amnesia. “It’s okay to find that interesting,” she says, “but I don’t want to be identified as that. I’m the everyday normal girl who works, plays and goes to school. I study hard; I go out and enjoy my time with friends and family. I want to be known as the fun-loving, laugh-at-everything Nathalie.”
Waleska concurs. “It got to a point where she made a decision not to let this change her life. She’s very humble but determined not to be a victim. She wants to show that although life throws you a curve, if you want something hard enough, you will be able to achieve it.”
The last word from Nathalie, now that she has the winter semester of college under her belt as well? “This semester was tough, but I'm still going strong," she writes. "I'm doing great and I'm moving forward!” Her note is signed, "Student Government Association Secretary."