'Remarkable' student passes degree after losing memory

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The Independent Online

A student who lost 21 years of her memory because of a severe brain disease has gained a degree in psychology, it emerged yesterday. Academics at Lancaster University said Leanne Walker's 2.1 degree was a "remarkable" achievement.

Ms Walker, 23, who lives with her family in Silverdale, Lancashire, was struck down by encephalitis, a virus which can inflame the lining of the brain, at Christmas 2000 during her second year of studies.

After a month in hospital, she was allowed home but tests showed that most of her memory had been wiped out.

To begin with, her memory span lasted just 30 seconds, meaning that she was totally dependent on her family. "I could hardly recognise anyone and I had very limited language," she said. "For example, although I knew what scissors were I couldn't remember the proper name for them and would call them paper cutters.

"I couldn't remember any of my first university year so I started again at the beginning. My mum would drive me to lectures and sit outside in the car because I was finding small things like finding my way around and understanding directions difficult. After the end of that academic year I began to get some of my independence back. It was a very challenging time but I knew I needed to do it to get back on track.

"I still have no past memory from before I was ill."

Although Ms Walker was still struggling with reading and writing, she returned to university in September 2001. Unable to follow sentences, she had lectures taped and relied on her mother and university staff to help her write essays.

Ms Walker said Dr Peter Walker, a cognitive psychologist at Lancaster, got her to work on building up her memory by giving her names of objects and animals and getting her to give as much information about them as she could, and to draw them. They found that her recall depended on how many times she had encountered the things in question.

Ms Walker's mother, Sue, said the experience had been horrendous but she was extremely proud of her daughter's achievement. "At the start we were just grateful she had survived," she said.

Ms Walker was presented with her degree last week by Princess Alexandra and is now considering taking a post-graduate course or working with disabled people.

Dr Walker said: "It's a remarkable story. When she came back to university she never once felt sorry for herself and to her the glass was always half full. She showed tremendous determination and approached her studies with such wonderful spirit that it was a pleasure to help her.

"When Ms Walker decided to study her memory loss as part of her degree we were able to look at her experience from a purely academic perspective. The information she produced is valuable because it helps us gain a better understanding of how memory recovery works, and how it might be facilitated."

Tom Ormerod, head of the psychology department at Lancaster, said: "We are thrilled for Leanne, who has come through the most extraordinarily tough set of circumstances to achieve what was, by the time she finished her studies, an extremely strong 2.1 performance.

"It was great that we had the systems in place to support her at Lancaster, both at university-level and within the department. It is down to her determination and ability that she did so well in what at first seemed to be an impossible situation."

Lancaster University is planning to to publish a detailed account of how Ms Walker overcame her memory loss.