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  • Writer's pictureJeff Schober

Vanished memories

After a head injury, this Blasdell resident lived for

six months with only a hazy knowledge of the world

During his injury, Kyle Lestenkof looked into an empty mirror, unable to recognize himself or anyone around him. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

When the 20-year-old opened his eyes, he surveyed the rural scene. There was a bridge nearby, and everything around him appeared unfamiliar. Amid the wooded terrain was a path with protruding rocks. He was alone, and couldn’t recall where he was.

Or how long he had been there.

Or what to do next.

Worse, he didn’t even know who he was.

“I was really confused and scared,” he later admitted. “All I remember was walking, falling and then waking up. At first I thought I was dead, or I was part of the wrong group and had been left for dead.”

Something heavy pressed in his pocket. He withdrew a phone, unsure how to maneuver it. Turning it on required a passcode, but he couldn’t conjure those digits. Facial recognition allowed him access.

While scrolling the screen, little made sense. None of the names were familiar. Everything was draped in confusion. The last text he received was from “Birth Giver.” The message wondered if he would be home for dinner.

“I was struggling to use the phone,” he admitted. “I knew how to speak and had basic motor functions, but I wasn’t sure what to do. When I read the text, I couldn’t recall who it was, but I figured I knew this person.”

It took about 15 minutes before he reasoned well enough to click the call button — an act that may have saved his life.

The contacts on Kyle's phone, where his mother was listed not as "Mom," but as "Birth Giver." © photo by Steven D. Desmond

For Kyle Lestenkof, it was the first tentative step toward clawing his way out of a hazy pit — an unusual cloud spanning more than six months of memory loss.

“It’s all been so surreal,” he reflected recently, six weeks after his memory snapped back into place. “It’s hard to explain my emotions. There are still things I don’t know if I remember from the past. People ask, ‘Do you have all of your memory back?’ I don’t know how to answer that.”

Out for a run

Last July, the six members of the Lestenkof family left their home in Blasdell for a vacation to the Thousand Islands. On this Tuesday, parents James and Melissa, 20-year-old triplets Kyle, Jared and Christopher, and 15-year-old Kassie, toured Alexandria Bay and visited Boldt Castle. Returning to their cabins, an hour away, Melissa laid out dinner for everyone, including family friends who were travel companions.

Kyle wasn’t hungry, so announced that he was going out for a run. A 2018 graduate of Orchard Park High School, he had been a member of the track team and still ran regularly. He told his mother he would eat when he returned.

Completing on the track team during high school. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“He left around 7:30,” Melissa said. “An hour later, he wasn’t back yet. He’s not usually gone that long. We were getting ready to put the food away, so I texted him, ‘hey, where are you?’ He didn’t respond, but I didn’t think anything of it. Maybe he went back to the cabin he shared with the other boys.”

As the sun was beginning to set, shortly after 9 p.m., Melissa’s phone rang. She answered to hear Kyle crying.

“I don’t know who this is or where I am,” he said.

Melissa was confused. “What?” she asked. She thought he might be joking, but the tears gave her pause.

“I fell on a rock and I just woke up,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Melissa to realize that her son was in trouble.

“Kyle, oh my God! Where are you?”

He couldn’t provide a specific location, but mentioned seeing a bridge nearby.

“Our friends knew something was wrong just from hearing my side of the conversation,” Melissa said. “We could only think of one bridge in that area. We went right down there and could see him walking around in a white shirt. I got out and ran toward him. He looked at me and didn’t know who I was.”

Kyle was frightened when he saw strangers rushing toward him.

“I took a few steps back. I wasn’t totally sure who these people were. My mom grabbed onto my arm and that frightened me, but she said soothing words that were calming. Even though I didn’t know her, I could tell she was caring. She got me to sit down and then called an ambulance.”

Melissa’s maternal instinct went into overdrive.

“He looked at me and didn’t know who I was. I grabbed him and he tried to get away. He was saying, ‘I don’t know who you are!’ I was telling him, ‘It’s me. It’s Mommy. Stay with me. I’ll take care of you.’ He was scraped up and had a goose egg on his head. My husband and our friend’s husband came down. Kyle was in shock, shaking and crying. He didn’t know any of us. It was horrible. Horrifying.”

April 2021: Kyle and his mother, Melissa, pleased with Kyle's eventual recovery. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

When state troopers and an ambulance arrived, everyone tried to piece together what had happened. Had someone hit him? The bridge was too high for him to have fallen off and still be alive, so that was ruled out.

When Kyle’s brothers approached, their mother told them not to frighten him.

“We told Kyle he was a triplet, ‘so don’t be surprised when your brothers look like you,’” Melissa said. “Even though at that point I don’t think he even knew what he looked like.”

After being taken by ambulance to a hospital in Massena, New York, the decision was made to transfer him to a state hospital in Syracuse. Despite Covid restrictions, Melissa insisted that she ride in the ambulance with her son, because he needed an advocate and was in no position to be alone.

In Syracuse, Kyle remained confused.

“He said, ‘I feel like I remember you and know you’re my mom,’” Melissa said. “But he didn’t remember anything about me. He looked at everyone with a stare, like he had no idea. He had some memory of the day of the accident, which was weird. He remembered going to a castle that day, but couldn’t give a description.”

Kyle underwent a CAT scan and an MRI, which revealed no brain bleed. Somehow, he had hit the part of his brain that knocked out his memory. After remaining in the hospital overnight, he was released. Physically, he was fine, although he still appeared to be in a fog. The family was encouraged to follow up with a neurologist.

“I kind of ruined my mom’s vacation,” Kyle reflected.

Foggy autumn

Back home, Kyle quit his fast food job. Attending school was out of the question. His family took him to a cognitive therapist and tried to jar his memory, but last fall was largely a lost time for Kyle.

His pediatrician, Dr. Gail Goodman of Southwestern Medical Association in Orchard Park, has been a doctor for 30 years. She began treating the Lestenkof triplets in 2004. After his accident, she examined Kyle and explained that Kyle’s memories might come back a little at a time, or all at once. Although it was possible his memory was lost forever, she did not believe that would happen.

“Brain injuries are not my area of expertise, but I see a lot of concussions because I treat adolescents,” Goodman said. “This was one of the most remarkable because of its severity and longevity, and lack of any other symptoms.”

Goodman noticed a distinct change in Kyle’s personality after his injury.

“It was quite a difference from who he was before to who he had become,” she said. “He had been fun and outgoing, liked to play sports, and was an ordinary adolescent. Suddenly, he was vacant and lost. His affect was very flat. He didn’t respond quickly or appropriately in conversation. He had lost memories of his family and childhood friends and information he had gained in classrooms. It was almost a complete loss.”

Kyle’s mother was eager for any outlook that Dr. Goodman could share.

Like this photo, Kyle was only able to see a small part of the world during his head injury. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“The doctor said, ‘I think he’ll get his memory back. I’ve never had a case where it didn’t happen,’” Melissa said. “I’m thinking, what the heck? How many cases have you had like this? This is something you’d see on a soap opera.”

Kyle was hired as a cleaner at a nearby elementary school, working alongside his brother Jared. During these months, he also became less antagonistic toward his sister.

“I felt very alone,” Kyle reflected. “People would message me, but I struggled with social skills. I didn’t really know what to talk about. Everyone on my phone was a stranger.”

He didn’t recall annual rituals like birthdays or Christmas. So in 2020, he experienced those things again, only this time felt like the first.

“The most frustrating part was not remembering,” he said. “Family and friends would show me pictures. I played along for the most part. I’d just say, ‘Sorry, I don’t remember.’”

But at times, the constant badgering became too much. One day, he snapped, yelling at his family. “Stop showing me things and asking if I remember!” His parents obliged, backing off.

As time passed, a memory fragment would creep back into Kyle’s consciousness. While carving pumpkins for Halloween, Kassie played a song from The Polar Express, and that triggered a recollection of singing the song in chorus when he was a boy. He knew that he had watched the movie on Christmas Eve at the family’s former house.

“Little memories came back each week,” Kyle admitted. “But I never told anyone. If I went to the McKinley Mall, a flash of the past came back, but never enough to share. I was still unsure. I kind of kept those moments to myself. I didn’t like being the center of attention or having all eyes pointed at me. I told myself I’d only say something when it all came back.”

Late night video view

Kyle wasn’t sure when — or if — that would happen. He suffered frequent headaches each day. If he was still without his memories by summer, he told himself, he would ask his brothers about places they had been together and then visit them on his own, hoping to trigger something.

“I hated seeing him so frustrated and alone and not comfortable in his own skin,” Melissa said. “There is a huge feeling of helplessness as a mom.”

Overnight on Friday, January 30, all that changed.

When they were high school seniors, his brother shot footage and assembled a video about the track team, which was posted to YouTube. After working a 3-11 shift, Kyle came home. Deep into the night, while the rest of his family was asleep, Kyle began to watch it.

“I just decided to watch the track banquet video. I saw all these pictures and I’d say, ‘I know that person!’ It led one memory into the next, and kept branching quickly. It all came back in a flood. I’m glad I was by myself, because I started crying. It was emotional. It was great to have the memories come back.”

Because no one else was awake, Kyle waited until morning to share his good news.

“He came downstairs [on Saturday] and said, ‘Mom, Dad, I have my memory back. Ask me anything.’” Melissa said. “Like it was no big deal. He remembered he had been born in Alaska, and also remembered a Disney trip. I was in shock at first, but then I got very teary-eyed. I had to keep quizzing him to make sure. It happened pretty much like the doctors said it could.”

The entire Lestenkof family, with Kyle on the left, watch the track video which triggered his memories. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

Although she worried that his memory recovery might only be temporary, as days passed, Melissa became convinced the change was permanent.

“This is my son,” she beamed. “He’s not alone anymore. He’s not a stranger. It was a total turnaround. We are so happy. This is incredible.”

Although Dr. Goodman has not seen Kyle since January, she was thrilled to learn his memory had returned.

“I thought the process would be more gradual,” she reflected. “I was shocked at the rapidity. Things came back almost as quickly as they left. Some door opened after being closed, and everything came back in a flood. I’m excited to see Kyle and see if his personality has returned.”

Kyle is grateful for the friends and family who stood by him. As far as life lessons learned, his experiences are so fresh that it remains difficult to put everything into perspective.

“The doctors had said there was a chance my memory wasn’t ever coming back, and I accepted that. It was how I coped. Fortunately, the memories returned. It feels like I’ve been gone for a while and now I’m back. I probably cherish friends and family more now than I ever did.”

© 2021 by Jeff Schober


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