Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Lost decade making a slow comeback

Cycling accident robbed scientist of his memories

ACC cut Robbie Price's entitlements saying his original concussion was no longer the reason for ongoing incapacity. Photo / Alan Gibson
ACC cut Robbie Price's entitlements saying his original concussion was no longer the reason for ongoing incapacity. Photo / Alan Gibson

Robbie Price's memory is returning. It's slow and a bit muddly but the Hamilton scientist is getting back some of his precious memories after almost eight months in a fog.

In April, Mr Price slammed head-first into a traffic sign while cycling to work. The result of the accident was severe amnesia, which removed memory of 10 years of his life.

The 44-year-old explained it was like "waking up in someone else's life".

He had no memory of moving to New Zealand from Australia in 2002, of his two teenage sons' childhood, of his job at Landcare Research or of events such as the election of America's first black president and the Christchurch earthquakes.

"I've made such a huge gain. I've been working really hard at improving the memory, including short-term memory," Mr Price said.

"My stamina is really increasing and my memories are starting to come back. It's certainly making life a lot easier."

Mr Price said a prescribed drug was aiding the return of his memories, which he was beginning to recall without initially realising.

"The funny thing is it's not like a surprise when it happens. I bumped into somebody the other day that I recognised, who I hadn't seen since the crash but it wasn't like 'oh finally I can remember', it was just like 'I know you'. It's six hours later you go, 'hang on?'.

"So knowing which bits are new and which bits are old is hard, because you don't have the full timeline."

Small pockets of memories from the childhood of his two boys, who were five and three when the family left Australia, had returned, but Mr Price said emotive memory seemed to cement in his mind first.

"It's very much the things I've done in exceptional circumstances," he said. "The odd thing is movies have come back. I think because when you're in a movie you're in a very emotionally strong environment. And then every now and again you're watching a movie and you think 'I thought that person was a friend of mine'. It is entertaining at times."

Mr Price has also worked out that by limiting his use of the road on which he had his accident, he can reduce his stress and the daily headaches and chronic fatigue that came with a head injury.

Now riding a new bike, Mr Price cycles to work on the river path and over parkland and university fields to avoid roads, and it's helping with the memory return.

"I still can't drive. We're pretty sure the roads are causing my brain to over-stress and that's what's stopping me from remembering."

An Australian doctor and friend Mr Price saw on a trip home to visit his parents told him the difficulty of remembering was probably a result of post-traumatic stress disorder.

After the accident, Mr Price was told he had been assaulted two weeks earlier while riding on Hamilton's riverpath, which could have contributed to the severity of the amnesia.

The former cycling and road safety advocate has had a neuro-psychological evaluation in Auckland and is waiting for a psychiatric assessment to conclusively diagnose his condition.

In October, ACC cut Mr Price's entitlements saying his original concussion was no longer the reason for ongoing incapacity. The insurer said its psychological and medical advisers diagnosed "possible dissociative disorder or factitious disorder", though ACC admitted the diagnosis was not a clear one.

One of the doctors involved in the case did not return calls or letters from the Herald asking for an explanation of the diagnosis.

Mr Price said his employers had covered the entitlement loss.

He was now looking forward to the assessment, which had yet to be scheduled.

"I'm quite positive about the outcome and I just need to convince work now to give me stuff to do."

- NZ Herald

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