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Woman Abandons Dreams Of Becoming Actress After Deadly Brain Condition Leaves Her Unable To Recognize Her Own Mother

Harriet in hospital (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

A young woman abandoned her dream of becoming a professional actress, after a life threatening brain condition left her unable to recognize her own mom. And, how it inspired her to become a nurse.


Walking to school one morning, Harriet Pollard was suddenly unable to use her mobile phone, then her words began to slur and when she turned to look at her mom, Michelle, she couldn't recognize her.

“It was utterly horrifying. I was aware that mom was someone I knew somehow, but I didn't know why or who she was," Harriet recalls.

Harriet (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

“Not being able to recognize the person you love most in the world is awful," she said.

Harriet had woken up on a morning February 2012 with a peculiar feeling of numbness down her left side, but got ready for school thinking little of it.

“I just got on with my day and thought maybe I'd slept in an awkward position," she said.

Harriet with mom, dad and brother at her graduation (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

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“But then things got a bit stranger and, as my mom later said, I started doing 'odd things' like pouring my cereal into my sandwich bag, saying I was going to take it to school," Harriet continued.

Then, as she walked out of the front door, her left side suddenly gave way and she collapsed on the porch.

“Mom got me into the car and drove fast to the hospital," she said.

Harriet and boyfriend Olly (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

“She is normally a fairly calm and collected person, but I remember the look of fear on her face," Harriet recalled. “She has a degree in biology and knew that something was seriously wrong, especially when she asked me to phone the school to tell them I was unwell and I had no idea how to use a phone. It was like an alien object."

Arriving at Epsom General Hospital, medical experts immediately recognized Harriet's symptoms – which by then included blurred vision, loss of speech and vomiting – were indicative of a serious brain problem.

Harriet (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

After completing simple tests like walking in a straight line and touching her nose, she was sent by ambulance to St. George's Hospital in London, which has a special stroke department.

By the time her dad Robert, and her brother Adam arrived to join her mother, her symptoms were even worse and she did not recognize them as her family, although she realized she knew them from somewhere.

Following MRI and CT scans of her brain, and a lumbar puncture checking her spinal fluid for infection, doctors diagnosed her with encephalitis, a rare but serious condition in which the brain becomes inflamed, caused by a problem with the immune system or an infection.

Harriet on holiday with her family (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

“Once they knew what it was, they pumped me full of anti-viral medicine to stop whatever it was that was making my brain swell," Harriet said. “But the recovery was very gradual and I had to spend a week in hospital learning how to recognize my family and speak again."

One month after the devastating attack, Harriet returned to school, but struggled due to the ongoing effects of the condition, which made it hard for her to retain information and meant she tired easily.

Harriet is a community nurse in Surrey (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

Initially the doctors thought she had a brain tumor or to have suffered from a stroke, until she was struck down.

Harriet always wanted to be an actress. But the tremendous care and support she received from the hospital nurses prompted an about turn, so she began training to be a nurse instead.

“I realized that I wanted to give back, like the hospital nurses," she said.

Harriet with her family (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

“I would have loved to be an actress, even though I think I probably would not have made it," she continued. “But working with kids who are in a similar situation to the one I was in is so much more rewarding."

The most serious illness she had suffered before this being shingles when she was 10, so, her encephalitis attack was a massive shock for Harriet.

That summer she scored poorly in her A levels, failing two out of five of her subjects, but still managed to earn a place studying drama at St. Mary's University in London. But she never took up her place, by then sure she wanted to nurse instead.

“My experience had opened my eyes to how wonderful nurses can be," said Harriet, who completed an access to nursing course in Kingston, south west London, before beginning her nursing degree at King's College London University.

Harriet is an ambassador for the encephalitis society (PA REAL LIFE/Collect)

“It was the little things like holding my hand that I really remember making such a difference for me," Harriet continued. “I thought if I could do that for someone else in a similar position, that would be amazing."

Now working as a nurse in the community in Surrey, having graduated in June 2018, she specializes in helping children with learning and physical disabilities, and has even helped care for children with encephalitis.

“It can sometimes be a comfort for parents and patients to meet me and know that you can get better after this horrible illness and lead a full and rewarding life," said Harriet.

She is also an ambassador for the Encephalitis Society. Recently, she put on a cabaret performance at a school theatre in Epsom in aid of the organization.

“It sounds strange to say, but encephalitis changed me in a positive way, and led me to do the work I love and embrace every day," Harriet said.

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

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