‘What Does It Mean to Smile?’: My Brother’s Amnesia Story #OurCovid19Stories

On the morning of July 1, 2020, my brother, Iyanu, collapsed at his apartment at Bodija. His landlady found him and called his friends. His friends later called us, his family, that evening.

They talked about him as though something so alarming hadn’t just happened earlier. My brother had collapsed. He could not stand to his feet without help, neither could he talk; my brother had become mute. His friends had rushed him to one of their mums who is a nurse. She presumed it was merely typhoid that affected him, that he should soon be fine. My parents, filled with hope, relayed her diagnosis to me that night hoping to relieve my worries. However, my worries intensified. Alright, he has typhoid, but he can’t talk; he collapsed and now it’s like he doesn’t recognize anybody, how does that make sense? So they became really worried, and so did I.

The day was July 1st. It was the beginning of a new month — it was also my birth month. But I would be so worried down to my marrow for most of the month that I wouldn’t look forward to my own birthday because of his incident.

Earlier that day, Iyanu had sent me a picture of himself. It was a weird picture: He was just staring into the phone. I remember texting him, asking why he had sent me a weird picture. He didn’t reply, which was scary because my brother always replies his texts imediately. I wondered why he didn’t reply me so I sent him a lot of messages, all of which he never replied. When I was informed about his incident later, I was shocked. I suspected it had to be something very serious for him not to be with his phone, moreso, not to reply messages. The next day, my parents moved him into a private hospital. Because of the ongoing pandemic, he couldn’t be moved into a public hospital like the University College Hospital(UCH).

He still was not speaking by the time he had settled into his room at the new hospital even though he was conscious. When everyone gathered around him, asking him about how he was feeling, my brother simply stared into space. This frightened my mother, especially his inability to speak. All of his friends were also scared. I remember having asked one of his Twitter friends for his perspective on the issue. He insisted that everyone should be praying for my brother.

Two, three days down the line, everyone kept going to the hospital. On one of those days, my mother arrived home and I could tell from her face that whatever she’d seen at the hospital had been worse than on the day before. So I asked her what happened to him, and she replied, “Iyanu’s case doesn’t quite agree with what is going on in the world.” I sank into my bed as she carefully shot those words in the air.

“Iyanu’s case doesn’t quite agree with what is going on in the world.”

My mother broke the news to me that my brother really couldn’t recognize people. Although Iyanu could tell he knew some people, he mis-named them. I couldn’t believe it. I walked into my room and sat down in silence. I thought hard about what my mother had said and my heart began pounding in my chest. So, I went back to her room and asked if she had actually been serious. She was surprised and asked me if she would ever lie to me. I insisted that she tell me what happened at the hospital, which she did again. She added that he gave unusual answers to their questions. It seemed as though everything in his brain had been flipped upside-down. Terrified, I would go to bed crying that night. I called my friend and told him about what was happening.

Although he was close to my brother, I hadn’t told this friend because I did not know how to break the news. Over the phone, he calmed me down and assured me that everything would be fine.

What made my anxiety worse back then was being unable to see with my own eyes what I had heard about my brother, to know whether to pray or look up treatments for him. All the information available to me came from his friends and my mother. This further affected my mental health as I was so mentally exhausted at that time already. It was a week to the launch of my non-profit brand Upfolio, and at the same time, I was taking a programme that my brother had sponsored with his hard-earned money. I was desperately looking forward to sending him my certificate. I eventually completed my programme but wished I could’ve asked him for advice on what to have done next. Iyanu was the person whose advice I sincerely needed but he wasn’t there; without him, my path had never felt so lonely. I remember having to cry my eyes out to get through that week.

A few days later, a medical practitioner came in to the hospital to assess my brother. He concluded that my brother had lost his memory because of either too much work or drugs. I and my parents were so shocked. His friends, however, denied him taking drugs. But the more his friends recalled from the weeks before, the sooner we discovered that my brother had rarely been sleeping. You see, my brother is a software developer. He runs three different jobs at the same time so he gets busy a lot. Because of this, he rarely slept. And when he slept, he never slept beyond two hours a night. Once awake, he could go another three days without sleep. The doctor explained that Iyanu had probably stressed his brain so severely it had ‘shut down’.

We listened to the doctor’s every detail. He advised that my brother stopped working to rest his brain to avoid exhaustion. Thankfully, my brother had started speaking five days after the incident, but he was still quite weak. He could tell he knew a few people but still mis-named them. For example, the first time we spoke on phone since his incident, he called me Tobi, not Tolu. Although I was shocked he could not recall my name, he knew I was his sister.

Iyanu was discharged about two or three weeks after he had collapsed. He was also placed on medications to help his recovery. I was terrified to talk to him when he first arrived home from the hospital because I wasn’t aware of what to do. I kept on begging my friends to call him and check on him in my place; I didn’t know how to relate with my own brother. I stalled talking to him until one night when I decided to video-call him. On seeing my call, he jumped with excitement. I asked if he remembered me to which he answered yes. “ You are Tobi.” With a smile I corrected him: I’m Tolu, not Tobi.

The entire conversation was weird. I found it hard to understand his speech. Later I’d discover that my brother had forgotten how to pronounce words; he also forgot his entire English lexicon. He couldn’t recognize alphabets or numbers. He would want to type a word but he would type it backwards. He mistook his friends for who they were not. It seemed as though maybe inside his brain was really upside-down.

During his recovery period, his friends were supportive of him. My brother had no job from July till December, but his friends were always there for him. Every time my family and I went to his apartment in Bodija, we would always meet about five of his friends there. He had a friend who lived in Lagos but who travelled down to Ibadan just to stay with him through his recovery — he is still with him till now. It relieved me to know that my brother wouldn’t have to be alone, that his friends would be there for him. They bailed him out of financial trouble. My friends and I had to teach him the English alphabet and how to smile again. Iyanu smile we would say each time his face was stiff. Each time we told him this, he would ask what it meant to smile. So we all would teach him by drawing out smiley faces for him to imitate — still, he kept smiling in a weird way.

It was a really tough time for me. I would cry after every video call, only to wipe the tears away whenever my mum called me so she wouldn’t notice the tears. Sometimes, I wonder why it happened to my brother in the first place. He sent me a birthday gift weeks after he had collapsed. I least expected it having considered his health. A friend had told him of my birthday, so he made a gift for me while in the hospital. When I saw his gift, I cried. It was a pillow and he had written something nice on it. So, that is all. My brother is fine now. He still mixes a few things up when he’s stressed himself a lot. He’s gotten a job and has started working again. He knows how to code again too. We hope he doesn’t suffer a relapse. We are happy and thankful and still keeping him in our prayers.

Written by Tolu Olubanke, a 300 level student of Physiology at the University of Ibadan. Tolu is the founder of Upfolio, a community which seeks to provide African youths with opportunities and resources to help upgrade their portfolio.

#COVID19OurStories is a series curated by Asido Campus Network, we aim to highlight the experiences of young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Do you have a story to share? Kindly send to asidocampusnetwork@gmail.com

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Asido Campus Network

Asido Campus Network

Asido Campus Network is a student led mental health promoting club and the youth arm of the Asido Foundation dedicated in ensuring optimal mental health