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Lack of Short-Term Memory Doesn't Stop New Grad
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Lack of Short-Term Memory Doesn't Stop New Grad


Lack of Short-Term Memory Doesn't Stop New Grad
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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: At commencement exercises for the University of Maryland, Baltimore County yesterday, school president Freeman Hrabowski made a special mention of a very special student.

Mr. FREEMAN HRABOWSKI (President, University of Maryland, Baltimore County): Among our graduates today is a remarkable young man - Andre Engel, who was diagnosed in 1995 with a malignant brain tumor.

SIEGEL: Andre Engel was a freshman at Rutgers University at the time. He left school, underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins to remove the tumor and recovered. But the tumor had turned out had done great harm to his short-term memory.

Doctors told him to forget about college. But as president Hrabowski told the graduates yesterday, Engel was determined to beat the odds.

Mr. HRABOWSKI: He convinced his doctors to include him in a one-year experiment, working with a neurophysiologist there at Hopkins and they made medical history. He learned how to remember by converting new information to his long-term memory by reading this new information four or five or more times each time.

He started back at a community college in '97. He came to UMBC in '99. And I want you to know that after studying 12 hours a day, seven days a week, never missing a class, that brilliant young mind is graduating today with a 4.0. Andrew, would you please stand.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HRABOWSKI: Where's Andrew Engel?

(Soundbite of applause)

SIEGEL: Andrew Engel graduated summa cum laude with a degree in health administration; and today, he came by our studios to talk about what life has been like since 1995.

Mr. ANDRE ENGEL: How it originally started, I was having trouble remembering people's names. I couldn't keep up with classes well. The year before I graduated with a 3.8 in high school; and then, so those type of memory - I didn't remember if I ate or just simple things, dorm room, my roommate's name.

But now it's a - the similar things like I have to read over information numerous times just to remember it. Regardless if it's a day before a test or the first day of semester, I'm studying the same amount all day.

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. ENGEL: I have a system that basically - I have my notes from the class. I get supplemental notes from Note Taker to fill in the gaps. I take notes from the textbook and then I type it out on a computer and then the whole week I'm studying those notes. And lots of times, when I'm studying, I try and hide the clock so I'm not thinking, oh gosh I've been doing this for so-and-so, you know, an hour. So I only know this much information. So I'm just trying - just do what I have to do and not think about that.

SIEGEL: Do you find that to do other things in life, whether it's to read a newspaper or to balance a checkbook; I mean, do you find that you also have to apply some special thought to it and some special energy?

Mr. Engel: Well, I don't think, like balancing a checkbook. Not that, I mean, I don't write that many checks but doing that wouldn't be that hard...

SIEGEL: People use to write checks like in the old days.

Mr. Engel: Yeah. Yeah. But, I mean, that wouldn't be, I mean, because that's not like you're remembering...

SIEGEL: Right.

Mr. ENGEL:'re just doing a task. But, like in movies, lots of times, it's a very complicated plot. Like, I have trouble remembering; and lots of times, especially - well, any type of movie - but you know, some movies are non-linear; and you're trying to remember this happened and then this is it the other time. And even you're...

SIEGEL: In "Syriana," you were really lost.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

SIEGEL: So was everyone else, actually.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes. But, I mean, even just a regular movie, I sometimes have trouble, you know, remembering. But it doesn't - I don't think it decreases my enjoyment of it.

SIEGEL: I gather you're a big sports fan.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

SIEGEL: And we won't tell the people at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County unless...

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

SIEGEL: ...because you're a Maryland Terps fan.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

SIEGEL: So if you watch a basketball game, by the second half, I mean, is it hard to summon what happened during the first half? Is it still there that easily retrieved at the top of your memory or is it - does it fade fast on you?

Mr. ENGEL: I mean, I would remember they're up by - I may not remember it at half time and then - a couple of minutes later what's the score. But I could probably tell you Maryland is winning or I could tell you, maybe generally, Maryland is wining by a lot or, you know, it's close.

You know, I may not remember the specific details or if like maybe if someone's talking about a specific play, I may not remember that particularly. But - I mean, lots of the times, if they say it, it will spark my, like oh okay, I remember that now.

SIEGEL: I was wondering if it's easier to remember things, which were phenomenally exciting at the moment they happened?

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Like a great dunk in a basketball game?

Mr. ENGEL: Oh, yeah.

SIEGEL: Is it more memorable than...

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, definitely.

SIEGEL: You know, in five minutes of slow defense or something?

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah. Yeah. Like, you know, an amazing play or something or like, it will definitely stick with me I think longer.

SIEGEL: In terms of being in an environment with people and remembering who they are...

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...and what they do, challenging?

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah. What I do, usually in the workplace, I have - just carry around a notebook with me. So when I'm talking with people, I write it down. I have their name and what they, you know, whatever they have - me a task or whatever I was going to do. So, I write it down so I can refer to it later. And I just have, like how I, you know, how to work different programs or whatever I happened to be doing. I have very detailed notes so I can refer back to it. Like if I, you know, if I only did something once or twice and then I go back to it later and go, oh this is how I do it. Or lots of times I'm doing it, you know, every day and then I have to keep from referring back to it but...

SIEGEL: So you acquired some of the habits of a good reporter here, which is...

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah. Yeah. Yes.

SIEGEL: take notes of what people are saying and have it ready.

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. You know?

SIEGEL: It would seem to me that among the challenges you faced...

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...after this, first of all is simply the physical injury to your brain.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

SIEGEL: And things that suddenly became very difficult because of the tumor.

Mr. ENGEL: Yes.

SIEGEL: But there are other things. Obviously, one problem you had to overcome was just pessimism or...

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...self-pity? You know, gee, you know, I used to be a lot better than this.

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah. I remember at the beginning, just remembering my friends in college and then coming home for winter break or whatever, complaining, oh I have all these tests to do. And I just remember thinking, oh I wish I could stay up all night and oh I had a class that I had to stay up all night and study for. I wished I had that opportunity. But I don't - I mean, now, it's almost like I'm used - it's kind of part of me, it's who I am now; and I guess the longer you're dealing with it, the more you get used to it.

SIEGEL: Well, it's a very inspiring story to know that you soldiered through and got the degree and congratulations.

Mr. ENGEL: Yeah, yeah, thank you. Definitely had helped with all of that - with the help of a lot of family and friends. So definitely helped a lot.

SIEGEL: That's Andrew Engel who yesterday graduated summa cum laude from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He says he's hoping to get a job at a nursing home and he has an interview next week.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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