It has been 27 years since an attack on a U.S. military convoy in the Middle East left Army reservist Melissa Dengan, now 63, with such serious head trauma that she was unconscious for five days. “I woke up back in the United States, and didn’t know how I got there,” she said. “I was pretty muddled for a while.”
“A while” turned into decades. A captain when she left active duty, Dengan eventually returned to school for a nursing degree. But bouts of overwhelming depression, anxiety, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress left her struggling to concentrate, remember, and learn. Group therapy helped with some of the psychiatric symptoms, but nothing worked for the cognitive ones. On a good day she could read only a few paragraphs of a textbook before her attention evaporated; her short-term memory was in such tatters that when she left the stove for even a few minutes to go to the bathroom, she’d forget to go back — once starting a kitchen fire.