Gaithersburg woman earns college degree two decades after complete memory loss


A community college commencement is, for many, a celebration of second chances.

Consider Su Meck. The 45-year-old homemaker from Gaithersburg graduated Friday from Montgomery College with an associate degree in music. It’s the culmination of a life that, in most senses of the word, began at 22.

In February 1988, a ceiling fan fell on Meck’s head. The blow erased her memory, and she awoke after a week in a coma with the mental capacity of a young child. She no longer knew her husband or her two baby sons. She barely spoke and could not read or write, walk or eat, dress or drive.

“It was Su 2.0,” said Jim Meck, her husband, a systems engineer. “She had rebooted.”

Su Meck had been in her kitchen that evening, making macaroni and cheese. She picked up Patrick, her 6-month-old son, and held him aloft. His body brushed against a ceiling fan and somehow unhooked it. It plummeted and struck Su’s head, according to Jim, the only one in the family with a memory of that day.

An MRI exam showed her brain suffused with cracks, “like shaken Jell-O,” her husband was told. The injury left her with complete retrograde amnesia, the inability to remember the past, a condition sometimes called Hollywood amnesia because it seldom happens outside the movies.

“It was literally like she had died,” Jim said. “Her personality was gone.”

Jim and Su had met five years earlier at Ohio Wesleyan University. He was a junior. She was a freshman. They had left college upon his graduation, married and settled in Fort Worth, where Jim took a job at General Dynamics and they started a family.

A rebellious child from the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, Su had removed the “e” from her name to set herself apart from three other Sue Millers at school. She had fallen in with the wrong crowd and done time in juvenile hall. She kept a drum kit in her bedroom.

“I distinctly remember a lot of fighting, a lot of door-slamming and then a lot of really loud drumming,” recalled Mark Miller, her brother.

When Su awoke from the coma, the past was quite literally gone, and she says that almost nothing that happened in the first 22 years of her life has returned. The few flashes of recollection have been brief and mostly fleeting, such as the distinctive feel of a drum tuning key, or the time she sat down at a piano, a few months after the accident, and played “The Entertainer” from what could only have been a memory. She could never do it again.

Friends and loved ones were now strangers. Many found Su’s empty gaze unbearable.

“I remember the first time I walked into the hospital room,” said Barb Griffiths, Su’s eldest sister. “I said ‘Hi, Su, how are you?’ She just looked at me, and there was absolutely no recognition in her face. Oh my gosh, it just tore me apart.”

‘A sort of free fall’

Su left the hospital after two months. She had completed a checklist of tasks, such as riding a bicycle, preparing a meal and reading a simple children’s book. New Su’s first book was Dr. Seuss’s “Hop on Pop.”

She had help — from her husband, other relatives and an au pair. But returning to life as a wife and young mother was “a sort of free fall,” she said.

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