Remember Me


Dino and AnnA sudden loss of memory, and their personal history, didn’t end the story of Dino and Ann Theodorou.

Written by Tom Gordon

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

The photo, taken 40 summers ago, is part of a history that only one of them now remembers.

Dino Theodorou and Ann Harville are standing together, his arm visible around her waist. At the time, Dino was a Snead State Community College student. Ann had just graduated from Albertville High School. Visible in the background are the front of Dino’s red 1973 Pontiac GTO and part of the double-wide where Ann lived with her mother and four siblings. Dino’s black hair is down to his shoulders. So is Ann’s.  She is wearing hip huggers and a crop top.

In a month, the two of them would be married at the Marshall County courthouse in Guntersville. By the end of the following September, they would be living in Southampton, England, where Dino would continue his studies and the first of their two daughters, Nickolette, would be born.

Dino can tell you all about those heady courtship days and detail the other things that happened over the course of their marriage. Ten years ago, Ann could have done so as well.  But that was before the onset of the headaches, seizures, and other warning signs that a tumor was present and growing in her brain.  The unwanted invader was removed after three years of unsuccessful treatments with medication, seven hours of surgery, and post-surgical follow-ups of chemo and radiation therapy. But the expulsion also took Ann’s long-term memory, and it greatly reduced her capacity to mentally store, and therefore use, much of what she learns today, as well as her ability to adapt when an unforeseen event intrudes upon the carefully crafted pattern of simple steps that typically define her days.

In so many instances, in the wake of an accident, illness or other traumatic event, the person affected is not who they once were. Their new circumstances can force wrenching readjustments upon their families, even test the families’ willingness to share love and understanding in the way they so readily did before. A physical injury, say, the loss of a limb or sight, is certainly a test. It is also a test when someone with whom you have spent most of your life cannot recall the experiences you shared, experiences that helped define your relationship and who you are, individually and together, events that either of you formerly could recall with just a word or a nod and generate a smile, a laugh, tears, or a frown. And that test can become more difficult when it is hard for that someone to remember what you tell them about those experiences and build a new storehouse of memories to help them function more fully in their new circumstances.

“It’s just become a part of our lives,” said Dino and Ann’s second daughter, Katherina Pearson. “It’s not as frustrating, I guess, because we’re used to it, and we’ve kind of acclimated ourselves to this situation.”

On a September night in the living room of the home where Dino and Ann live in north Shelby County, Ann drew the curtains, served a visitor a glass of ice water, and she and Dino set up a small barricade of cushions to keep one of their two dobermans, Elektra, from joining the ensuing conversation. And a lot of that conversation was about their lives together. Dino talked about it in detail, hardly pausing in his recollections. Ann talked about it, too, but not as much, because details and names often eluded her.  More than once, she preceded her own comments with a questioning look at her husband and the words, “Based on what you told me,” or “From what they told me.”

“That happens a lot in our family,” Pearson said later. “She will see things, and a lot of times, they’ll bring back a feeling but she can’t put her finger on it.”

“I get frustrated with myself many, many times,” Ann said.

One of the many frustratingly elusive topics for her is the story of how she and Dino met, on May 19, 1973. At the time, Dino had completed six quarters of classes at Snead State since arriving there from Greece in December of 1971, but he was homesick and wanted to continue his studies and be closer to his family in the city of Salonica. Ann was about to graduate and had been thinking about a career in the medical field. Her parents were divorced, and her mother was  supporting the family by working in a chicken-processing plant.

On the afternoon in question, Dino was one of two passengers in a car that happened to pull into a parking space outside a grocery store alongside another car. Ann’s cousin Glenda was at the wheel of that vehicle and Ann was a passenger, and Glenda knew the driver of the car in which Dino was riding.

“They had gone out a couple of times,” Dino said. “…Well, they just started talking—” “But was…her guy that she was dating with you?” Ann asked.

“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” Dino said. “The guy that was driving had gone out with Glenda.”

“Ohh, okay,” Ann said.

“So he started talking to her.”

“Okay.”

“And when he started talking to her, I noticed that you were in the passenger seat.”

“Ohh, okay.”

One thing led to another, as they say. By the middle of June, Dino had asked Ann to marry him and accompany him to England.

“I worked a little fast, you know,” he said. Sitting near her husband on the living room couch, Ann let out a laugh.

“He did, yeah, he did,” she said. “He worked fast. I don’t remember, but, okay…”

On that day they first met, Dino and Ann ended up in a packed movie theater to watch a movie not many would remember today: The World’s Greatest Athlete, starring Jan Michael Vincent.  Ann doesn’t remember it, and she will not remember a film that she and her husband might watch for the first time tonight.

“I can watch it several times and not recall what I watched,” she said. “It takes me a fifth time to remember a little bit.”

Because of its many topics and destinations, the evening conversation was like a slide show, with Dino pressing the forward button.  He and Ann spent three years in Southampton, where he earned a degree in naval architecture, and Ann gave birth to Nickolette and pined for the Dr. Peppers she used to drink back home.  Two years followed in his hometown of Salonica in Greece, where Ann and the baby lived with his parents while he did stints of work in Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and Ann studied to be a nurse practitioner and gained a level of fluency in Greek.  Then came several years in Tuscaloosa,  where he got a graduate degree in petroleum engineering; Ann worked for a time in a Krystal fast food restaurant and gave birth to Katherina after Dino had accepted a offer to manage some oil storage facilities in Trinidid, only to see the opportunity disappear. Then it was back to Greece, where he hoped to land a job with the Greek national oil company in the Aegean Sea but instead had to serve in the Greek army because of a crisis that arose between Greece and Turkey.

Ultimately, back in Alabama, he got his doctorate, and he now teaches math at Jefferson State Community College’s Shelby-Hoover campus.  Ann became a nurse, and had a couple of jobs before she took one with a doctor’s group practice at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Well before then, she had become what daughter Nickolette McCain described as “the rock…the foundation of the entire family.

“She could recall anyone’s birthday or significant date to memory just at the mere mention of that person’s name,” McCain said. “She had everyone’s schedule, I mean, in her head, she knew so-and-so needed to be here at this time and she pretty much was the coordinator of the entire family and did everything. She paid the bills, she ran a household, and she worked a full time job. She raised two children.  And then all of a sudden she sensed that things weren’t right with her, and she was starting to lose some of that control, so to speak.”

McCain and her father think that Ann tried to keep up a normal front until she could no longer hide that something was wrong.  There already had been some episodes of forgetfulness, but the signs that really caught Dino’s attention, in late 2003, were what are known as absence or petit mal seizures.

“She would just basically be talking to you,” Dino said, “and she would”—his face froze in a blank expression—“and then come back.”

“That would last three or four seconds in the beginning,” he added. “I’m sure it started with like one second or two seconds. It just didn’t become perceptible until it became long enough in duration for me to say, ‘Are you listening, are you okay?’ And she would snap out of it. The four seconds became five, became 10, 30 seconds, and it ended up being up to about a minute. It was sort of like, gradual.”

By the following summer, Ann could no longer mask her concern over what was happening to her. She was working for the doctors’ group, and Dino often would pick her up at the end of the day and take her to dinner.  But there would be days when she would come out bewildered, frustrated, and on the verge of tears. “I can’t remember things,” she would tell him. “I’m having a hard time trying to say what I’m thinking. I forget names of things.”

Pre-op: In this image, the brain is gray, the spinal fluid is dark, and the tumor is brighter, white.

Pre-op: In this image, the brain is gray, the spinal fluid is dark, and the tumor is brighter, white.

“She was really frustrated,” Dino said.

In August, Ann had an MRI. It showed the presence of a tumor commonly called an infiltrating glioma in the right temporal lobe. At that point, McCain said, her mother and her caregivers began a trial and error treatment process and she moved back home to help her.

“She went on—oh gosh, I don’t know how many—an exorbitant amount of medication,” McCain said.

After three years of treatment and observation, the seizures had not stopped, but were becoming more frequent, and family members say a lot of Ann’s memory was already gone.  Meanwhile, the tumor had become more malignant and larger.

“Obviously taking out the area of the tumor was what was required in order to stop her seizures,” said Dr. Kristen Riley, a UAB neurosurgeon who ultimately operated on Ann.  But Riley said she and her surgical team were “stuck between a rock and a hard place” because they knew they would be removing more than just the tumor itself.

“In general, we can identify areas that are at risk, and certainly there are areas that we operate on in the brain that don’t put memory at risk,” Riley said. “In her case, unfortunately, her tumor was in the memory structure of the brain so…we knew that…the trade-off to taking out the area of the tumor was also taking out these structures that are responsible for memory.”

Riley does cranial neurosurgery and adult epilepsy surgery at UAB Hospital. She says more than a few of her epileptic patients have not suffered significant “memory deficits” because they had been suffering seizures for many years and “contralateral memory structures” on one side of their brain had been able to take on memory functions that the structures on the other side could no longer perform.

“Even though we know their memory is going to be worse, if they’re seizure free, they can adapt and compensate, and the memory deficits are not too disabling,” Riley said.

Ann  Theodorou did not fall into that category. “I think she was uniquely susceptible to memory loss because she doesn’t rely on that other side of her brain like we would have expected,” Riley said.

“We can look at her MRI scan, and it looks great from a tumor standpoint, but obviously that doesn’t tell the story of the whole person and her abilities and limitations as well.”

And a person without a whole memory is, well, less than whole.

Post-op: This shows spinal fluid filling the resection cavity (dark).

Post-op: This shows spinal fluid filling the resection cavity (dark).

“Our memory shapes who we are and how we respond to situations,” Riley said. “If you don’t have the memory of important things, certainly it affects how you deal with situations.”

About two years after her mother’s surgery, 10 weeks of radiation treatments, and a year of chemotherapy, McCain gave birth to her first child, a girl she and her husband, Brandon, named Sia. The occasion was a joyful one, but McCain said it also was a “little bit wistful” because it reminded her of the changes in her own mother.

“I didn’t know anything; I was going into it blind and for a woman, that is the most important time of your life that you need to lean on your mother,” McCain said. “You need her there to support you and guide you through what’s happening because you don’t know what’s happening, and she would know best. And I didn’t have that. She was there in the room during the birth…but I didn’t have her to lean on in the emotional way that I had always thought she would be there.

“I’m holding my child for the first time and, you know, she’s doing something, and I don’t know what to do. I went to turn to my mother and ask for her help, and I thought, ‘Well, she’s not going to know or she couldn’t answer.’”

So how do you love someone in the same way who, because of a seismic change in her brain, is not the same person?

“It’s an interesting dynamic, because the bond is still there, the connection’s still there, and the love is just as strong as ever,” McCain said. But then she said the relationship has an element you don’t normally associate with love—“a detachment.” And she wonders if the relationship would lose a lot of the strength it has if she and her mother did not have regular contact.  She and her mother are regularly on the phone, and Ann frequently comes to the McCain home in Homewood to visit or babysit Sia and her little brother, Liam, but it took her about a year to remember Sia’s name.

Ann does not have that regular contact with Katherina and her husband, Greg, who live in Tuscaloosa, and Katherina said her mother “didn’t know my husband’s name for quite a long time.”

“If (things) are consistent in her life, she remembers them,” Katherina said. “It’s things that are not consistent in her life and things…before the surgery, she doesn’t remember.”

Most of us start a day with expectations that a lot of things will be as they were the day before, that the road on which we go to work each morning will be open and drivable. If one day that road happens to be closed, we adjust and take another route.

Adjusting—improvising—is something that Ann Theodorou can no longer do. That is another reality of her post-tumor life. But her husband said some things are engrained in her, as though they are part of her DNA. Things like the feeling that “everything’s got to be done now and everything’s got to be in the right place. ‘Your shoes go here and your toys go here.’

“She doesn’t like disorder,” Dino said. “Everything’s got to be orderly. She likes life to be scheduled. She likes the work to be scheduled. She likes repetition. She’s not like me.”

While she is frustrated by not remembering more, and not remembering enough to take on the complex tasks that she handled with ease in the years past, Ann still has moments when she will briefly recall a memory that friends and family thought that her tumor had taken away.

One of those moments came not too long ago, during a family gathering at the McCain household, when a British Premier League soccer match was on TV and Southampton was one of the competing teams. McCain knew the team’s anthem— her dad had taught it to her when they were living in Southampton—and she sang some of it in “the way that I used to sing it when I was little,” she said.

“And [Mom] suddenly…speaks up and says, ‘Hey! You used to sing that when you were a baby.’ And my father and I of course, we’re like, dumbfounded….”

Dino also says that the simpler way in which his wife now lives her life has made the qualities that first attracted him to her even more apparent. Asked to describe those qualities as he sat on his living room couch, he started with two words.

“Her kindness,” he said.

Before he could elaborate, Ann cut him off.

“I thought it was my boobs,” she said.

Several seconds passed as Dino fumbled for a response.

When he found one, he had to navigate through the waves of his wife’s laughter.

One Response to “Remember Me”

  1. Donna says:

    Beautiful story of a wonderful family. Their love for one another is strong and I know they will continue to stay committed to building their relationships.

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