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Man challenges memory, brain makes new pathways

Staff writer

Almost 21 years after undergoing surgery to remove a tangled cluster of blood vessels from deep within a frontal lobe of his brain, Marcus Carlson, a farmer-stockman from Lincolnville, continues to deal with challenges associated with it.

The surgery left him with damaged short-term memory but was necessary to prevent a recurrence of a brain hemorrhage in April 1995 that left him in a coma for five days. He was hospitalized 23 days including 15 in intensive care.

He said his long-term memory is fine and his short-term memory has greatly improved since his surgery.

“My brain has rewired itself,” he said. “Memories come back easier now. You can train your brain to remember things differently. You prioritize things according to their importance. If they are not important, you let them go.”

When he first came home after his surgery in July 1995, he couldn’t remember days, dates, months, or even what he had eaten two hours earlier. His wife, Peggy, made lists of things for him to do every day and played memory games with him.

He started to select numbers to memorize, such as the square roots of numbers from 1 to 10, and his memory improved by “leaps and bounds,” Peggy said.

Carlson taught himself to count backwards from 100 in sets of three.

“I love it because I can do it anywhere,” he said. “It’s a way of challenging myself.”

He still carries a notebook to jot down things he needs to recall later.

“It’s no more a handicap than putting on a pair of glasses,” he said. “Some people have to grab a cane; I have to grab a notebook.”

He has to make sure he puts things back exactly where they were or he will forget where he left them. He also learned that reading something out loud makes it easier to recall.

“With a bad memory, those habits make life easier,” he said.

The Carlsons hosted 11 foreign exchange students between 1999 and 2012, and each one provided Marcus with new learning challenges. Three exchange students were from Vietnam, and Marcus learned how to count in Vietnamese.

He said one day sometime later, a strange thing happened. He was trying to remember a number he hadn’t written down when it came to him in Vietnamese, which he then translated into English and wrote down.

He still can do math, but it takes him a long time to transfer a phone number from short-term to long-term memory.

“I often ask myself, how can I remember this?” he said.

His 30-year-old son, Brent, lives nearby and helps with the farming operation. They start weaned calves on feed for themselves and others and raise crops and hay.

“At the end of each day, I have to look back to make sure things are done,” Carlson said.

The 56-year-old farmer said he has been plagued with a sleep disorder ever since his surgery. He wakes up after five hours or so. Sometimes he falls asleep again, he said, but other times he just rests until it’s time to get up.

His greatest pleasure is in discovering a new memory.

“It’s kind of cool when you all of a sudden recall something and think, ‘I wouldn’t have remembered that several years ago,’” he said.

He credits his wife, family, and neighbors for helping him get through those first difficult years and allowing him to gradually take on more responsibility.

Carlson has found that people don’t always know how to relate to him.

“Can I talk to you?” they ask.

He said he appreciates their concern and always is glad to talk to them.

He continues to challenge his mind to remember things. He said he might never have a “normal” memory, but it is normal enough that he is comfortable with it.

“I keep working at it,” he said. “Peggy and I have studied memory, and we learned that activity, exercise, and healthy eating all help.

“The one good thing that came out of this is that I can help others who are facing some kind of brain surgery and don’t know what to expect.”

Last modified March 31, 2016

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