A brilliant marine biologist woke up an “entirely different person," with no memory of her previous life, because of a rare condition that causes the body to attack its own brain cells.
Fran Geall, from Falmouth, Cornwall, England, who has a masters degree, was struck down with the auto-immune condition encephalitis, which wiped all recollection of her $57,877 five year university education.
As well as forgetting her time in academia, Fran said she no longer knew some of her closest relatives and friends—including her niece and her partner's family—explaining:
“With people I'm told I've known for years, it can be like meeting them for the first time, which is really sad."
Fran in hospital with a friend, Beth, visiting (Collect/PA Real Life)
“I also feel like I'm meeting myself again, because I have absolutely no idea who I was before all this was."
“People say there's a new Fran, that I'm a different person and they're having to accept that. I'm not so sure if I like the new Fran, though. All I want is to get back to the old me, who achieved so much and built so many loving relationships."
As “old Fran" she completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology, before being awarded a Master of Science in sustainable agriculture from Plymouth University.
Fran with a friend, Helen, on holiday before becoming ill
Keen to work in ethical agriculture in January 2018 she landed her “dream job" working as a business development manager for an oyster company in Whitstable, Kent.
In December 2015 she had also become engaged to marry the love of her life, teacher Stacey Tonkins, who she had met at university in 2014.
But her happiness was shattered in March this year, when she began suffering with migraines so crippling that she was forced to stay in bed for a week.
Fran with her parents Jo and Dave at a friend's wedding in 2015 (Collect/PA Real Life)
She saw her GP and once visited the ER, but doctors thought she had pulled a muscle in her neck, as she could not put her chin to her chest.
Then, one morning in March, she began having a seizure in bed and it became clear something was very wrong—prompting Stacey to call an ambulance to rush her straight to Kent's Ashford Hospital, where she was immediately put into an induced coma.
Coming to a week later, she seemed like a completely different person.
Fran in a coma (Collect/PA Real Life)
Unable to read, walk or speak for several weeks, she is still having to relearn many basic life skills.
“Doing the simplest things, like using a computer or navigating around a supermarket have now become very difficult," said Fran.
“But what is heartbreaking for me is that my intellect, which was like my superpower, is now gone, and all the years I spent learning facts and learning about the natural world has been wiped out like chalk on a blackboard."
Fran with her brother, Joe, in hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)
Despite having scant memories of her life before her brain condition, fortunately, Fran said she still feels an instinctive emotional link to many of her loved ones, such as Stacey, her parents and her siblings.
But she has no recollection at all of her sisters-in-law or her niece and is now having to rebuild these relationships from scratch.
“When Stacey and my family visited me in hospital, I knew instinctively that they were people I loved, but I couldn't remember anything about them, apart from very minimal, basic details."
Fran with Stacey and their dog, Rio, just after being discharged from hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)
“They would show me photos of old times together and it wouldn't jog anything – it's like looking at someone else's life."
“I couldn't speak, I couldn't walk and I had no idea who anyone around me was or what had happened to me."
Slowly, her faculties began to return, although Fran could write before she could talk.
Fran in hospital with her mum and Stacey (Collect/PA Real Life)
“I don't know why, but the first thing I was able to write down was my mum's telephone number. I couldn't remember anything, but for some reason I could remember that."
“The second thing I wrote was, 'things are a jumble.'"
“My friends and family tried to communicate by speaking and writing things down, too, but I couldn't understand anything."
Fran and Stacey on a walk after being discharged from hospital (Collect/PA Real Life)
Things gradually improved when Fran was given a plasma exchange ten days after being admitted to hospital, a procedure which replaced the white blood cells in her system that had been attacking her brain.
After that, her speech recovered and she started writing a daily diary although, sadly, it did not trigger any memories.
Discharged from hospital after five weeks, determined to get back to normal, she returned to work.
Fran 're-meeting' her niece, Iyla (Collect/PA Real Life)
Within a few days, however, it became clear it was not going to be possible for her to stay when she had a major seizure.
“I realized then that my recovery would take a lot longer than I had imagined."
“The doctors have no idea if I will ever regain my memories, so I'm living with the prospect of potentially having to relearn everything I ever knew."
Fran on her first day at work in January 2018 (Collect/PA Real Life)
Now based in Falmouth, near Stacey's family, who are helping to support her and her fiancee, Fran—who once spent a few years studying in the seaside town—is putting all her energy into her recovery
“When I'm out people will sometimes come up to me and say hello, as they recognize me from when I lived here before."
“Obviously, they don't know what I've been through. I have no idea who they are, but still smile and pretend to know them."
Fran with a friend, Laura, before encephalitis in 2016(Collect/PA Real Life)
“We only have a brief conversation, so they're usually none the wiser. If I talk to anyone for longer, they can usually tell something isn't quite right, so I tell them what happened."
Luckily, Fran has not lost her hunger for knowledge and is now reading up on everything she learnt at university, keen to retain it—although she can only study for short periods, as the mental exertion can trigger seizures.
As doctors have no idea what caused her encephalitis, a condition which still frequently baffles the medical profession, Fran often blames herself for what has happened.
Fran and Stacey at Boardmasters festival in Newquay, 2016 (Collect/PA Real Life)
“In a way, I feel like it's my fault. There's no logic to that whatsoever, but if I tell myself that it's just unfair, it puts me into a spiral of depression."
“Telling myself that there was some reason behind it lets me think that I can somehow get better and move on, even though no one seems to know if I'll ever have my memory back."
Although the future remains uncertain, Fran is delighted when people tell her they still see signs of the person she used to be.
Fran and Stacey out at a restaurant for the first time since becoming ill (Collect/PA Real Life)
“People say that I used to crack a lot of jokes, and I'm starting to do that again now.
“But I suppose when you're in a situation like mine, what else can you do?"
A version of this article originally appeared on Press Association.