First Person - Kenny Hollis, head-trauma survivor with no short-term memory

‘Enjoy life while you can still remember it’

Editor’s note: First Person is a series of commentaries that gives voice to those not commonly heard in Atlanta media.

In 2001, Kenny Hollis suffered a brain injury that left him with Memento-style memory impairment, in which he is often unable to remember people and events from one day to the next.

I grew up in Acworth. I went to Acworth Elementary, Awtrey Middle School, North Cobb High School and Kennesaw College. I was a music major. I played clarinet in the Cobb Symphony for four years. I took Spanish at North Cobb, but I hadn’t spoken it for 20 years. Then, after my brain surgery, it all came back.

The doctor won’t let me drive anymore, which isn’t fair because they let her drive in the movie 50 First Dates, in which Drew Barrymore’s character has a similar memory condition to Hollis. I told my sister, who’s a nurse, that they let her drive in the movie, but how come they won’t let me drive? And you know what she said? That movie was fiction.

I came to Atlanta in 1980, in March. I stayed down there for, well, until I got sick. 2001, yeah, I went into the hospital. Emory. And I was there for six weeks. My mama, turned out she was there the same time I was and I didn’t even know it. She had an aneurysm. Anyway, when I got out, I went to live with my sister in Cartersville. I was there, she said, for a few months. Of course, I have no memory of this.

I didn’t remember anything. I just woke up. I don’t remember that, either. But they had to explain to me I’d been in a car wreck. Then the movie 50 First Dates came out. So then, at least I knew I wasn’t alone. Yeah, I hurt my head. In the movie she hit a tree. I hit a telephone pole.

And then the family moved me and Mama in together down here in Kennesaw. They figured since we both just had brain surgery, we could take care of each other — which wasn’t a good idea.

I lived with her for three years. And she had me call an ambulance for her six weeks in a row because she had a mental issue and she was always wanting to go to the hospital. And I didn’t know that because I was out of it, too, at the time. So, every week I’d wake up and say, “Oh, Mama, please don’t die. I’ll call an ambulance right now.” And they’d always come out. And then it got to be where the ambulance drivers would say stuff like, “Oh, no. Not him again.”

The last time, they kept her. And I went and stayed with my stepfather. He’d had stomach surgery the same time Mama and I’d had brain surgery. There were six of us in the hospital that year. But, anyway, he had me call an ambulance for him, too. The same ambulance showed up and the lady took one look at me and said, “Oh, no. Not him again.” And I had to explain to her, you know, it was my stepfather this time, it wasn’t Mama. So they went on and got him.

I was out of work until I started here at a Kennesaw gas station in October of ‘04. I write in my diary every day at home and go back and read it and surprise myself sometimes. But yeah, I have to write everything down and then I pretty much can remember some of it. If it’s important enough, if I think about it a lot, it’ll go in my long-term.

It was hydrocephalus fluid on the brain, was what I had. I’m not sure what the surgery was called. I just know it was for hydrocephalus. I was at Emory for six weeks and then at Kennestone for two months, for rehab. I was born at Kennestone, so that’s OK.

Everyone treats me like normal, because I pretty much act normal. I just don’t remember things. I can’t believe I’m as old as I am. Can you believe I’m 50? I don’t believe that.

I was working third shift at the Dunwoody Kroger when I had my accident. I was driving home from work and they said I probably fell asleep at the wheel and hit a telephone pole. I haven’t seen a doctor in ages. My sister’s a nurse, and she checks up on me every now and then to make sure I’m alright. But like I said, long as I walk everywhere every day and stay off sugar — that was another thing. While I was in the hospital having brain surgery, they found out I was borderline diabetic, so I’m glad they caught it in time.

I just read the newspapers, mainly. Every day it’s new, anyway. I watch all my videos at home. DVDs. I got the whole “Star Trek” series. I can remember those every time I see them. I like watching them. And “Voyagers” and “Next Generation,” and all the movies. Oh, and “The Golden Girls.” I like them, too. They’re funny.

It’s really not that much difference when you come out. You’re still an active, vital person. You may not be able to remember what you’d like to, but you don’t notice it’s not there until someone brings it up. According to the doctor’s report I’m functioning adequately in today’s society. That’s what the paperwork said.

I guess I’ll stay here until whatever comes. I like it here, my customers like me and I like them. It’s walking distance from home. There’s a Wal-Mart, grocery store, work, all in walking distance.

Enjoy life while you can still remember it. Like I say, once you can’t remember everything, it’s pretty bad. The bad thing is how fast life seems to go by when you can’t remember anything.

— As told to Steven Watson