A woman cannot recognise her own family or even HERSELF after suffering the UK’s worst case of face blindness – caused by a cold sore.
Hannah Read, 22, suffered encephalitis – an inflammation of the brain – that was triggered by the virus, when she was just eight.
She was rushed to hospital in a coma and put on life support – but when she recovered Hannah failed to recognise the faces of her friends and family.
Hannah hoped she would get better – but still sees every single face as just “two eyes, a nose and a mouth”.
Specialists told Hannah she has the worst case of face blindness in the UK – and there is no cure.
Nursery nurse Hannah has to get the kids at work to wear name badges, and memorises her colleagues favourite clothes, as their faces all look the same.
When she plays sport with pals, the only way she knows who’s on her team, and who to pass a ball to, is because they wear a different coloured bib.
Hannah’s visual perception means she cannot watch TV, and when dating, Hannah couldn’t see if the person on the online profile was the person who showed up – or if they were a ‘catfish’.
She has now settled down with boyfriend Dan Hancock, but before that she had no idea if she was being catfished by dates.
Encephalitis can be triggered by any virus – including COVID-19, and Hannah hopes to raise awareness of this largely-unknown yet potentially fatal reaction to an infection.
Hannah, from Ringwood, Hants., said: “When I was at the Isle of Wight festival, I went to the toilet and when I came out, I looked to see where my boyfriend was, but he was standing next to someone wearing exactly the same clothes, so I didn’t know which one he was!
“So I just stood and waited for him to see me! Every face looks the same. I can see two eyes, a nose and mouth, but they literally all look the same on everyone’s faces.”
Hannah’s troubles began in August 2006, when she flew to Gran Canaria on holiday with her family, but on just the second day started to be violently sick.
She said: “I went to the doctor but they thought I was just dehydrated, so gave me hydration tablets, but the next day I had a really high temperature and a bad headache.
“I kept asking if I could go to bed, which was really out of character, until a became unconscious.”
Hannah’s dad Andy, 55, rushed her to Clinica Roca Hospital, San Augustin, in a taxi, and she suffered 15 seizures on the way there.
She was diagnosed with encephalitis, a potentially fatal inflammation of the brain, triggered by a viral infection.
Hannah’s brain had begun to swell up after contracting the cold sore virus and her body couldn’t fight it off.
She was transferred to intensive care at Matermo Infantil Children’s Hospital, where she fell into a coma and had to stay for three weeks.
Hannah said: “I was kept alive by machine. No one knew whether I was going to survive or not.
“I was two hours away from the hotel, so my heavily pregnant mum stayed with me and slept on the floor, and my dad and sister would drive to visit every day.
“My dad said he was kissing me goodbye every time he left because he didn’t know if I would still be there the next day.”
Hannah came out of her coma after a couple of days, but it was weeks later that she showed signs of her brain functioning and could be flown home and transferred to Southampton General Hospital.
Hannah said: “I can’t remember anything from before I got ill or even going back home.
“I had no clue I was even in hospital at the time, but I know I couldn’t feed myself and the machines kept me alive.
“When I got home, when everything should have been familiar, nothing was – I couldn’t find my way round the house.
“I couldn’t recognise any of my family or friends, and it wasn’t until about three weeks later I knew I had face blindness.”
Hannah was in hospital for two more weeks re-learning how to walk and talk, but was discharged from the hospital when there was nothing more the doctors could do to aid her development.
It wasn’t until then that her parents noticed their was something different about their eldest daughter.
“When I came home I had to relearn the alphabet and couldn’t dress or bathe myself, which is why it took a bit of time for them to notice I wasn’t recognising faces,” she said.
“The part of my brain that processes faces never recovered.
“My two sisters, Elle and Mia, are really close in age and of similar height, so I couldn’t tell them apart!”
At school, she had to ask a teacher to direct her to her friends if she was the last one in the playground, because she couldn’t recognise them.
It’s not just human faces that look the same – she also struggles to tell animals apart.
Hannah added: “I remember we used to drive through the New Forest and, because I can’t recognise animals, horses, cows and donkeys look the same, so my parents would point to some cows and I would say it was a field of dogs!”
When she was younger, there wasn’t a neurologist in England that specialised in face blindness.
Louise contacted Dr Brad Duchaine, from Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA, who recognised diagnosed her with face blindness, or prosopagnosia – and said there was no cure.
It means, despite her vision being fine, she could not attribute a face to a specific person.
Hannah has learned to adapt to her condition and uses name badges on the children at the nursery, and recognises her teammates in netball by the colour bibs they wear.
She said: “I’m really independent now and can go out by myself, having the reassurance that I can use Google Maps if I ever feel lost.
“Some people still think I’m being rude when I pass them in the street and don’t recognise them though!”
In 2012 faceblindness specialist Dr Sarah Bate, from Bournemouth University, told Hannah she had the most severe case in the UK.
The lack of understanding has inspired Hannah to keep raising awareness of encephalitis and face blindness, than can be contracted through any viral infection, including COVID.
The Encephalitis Society have seen several reports of COVID-19 positive patients developing meningo-encephalitis, and that early data suggests COVID-19 has neurological complications in around 30% of patients.
World Encephalitis Day is February 22 2020.