Interview with Bjarne Wædeled - the man with the shattered memory

After a successful career as a businessman, Bjarne lost his job and wife - and couldn’t figure out why. Years later he had a stroke and was taken to the hospital. Here the doctors revealed to him that the reason things had been going downhill for the past years was that he had actually already had a stroke once before! Now Bjarne lives with 97% short term memory loss. To help him in his daily life, he has a helper called René, who was also on the stage of TEDxOdense in 2017 with him, and who has been with him for 6 years now.

 

Bjarne on the red dot during his talk at TEDxOdense 2017 and René to the left.

 

When we sat down to talk to Bjarne at his apartment, we were surprised by how normal he seemed. He could tell us quite a lot about his four sons, such as their jobs and hopes in life. This is because Bjarne remembers things best when they make an emotional impression. On top of this, he had a lot of great stories to tell from the time before his memory loss. Stories spanning continents and even involving celebrity figures!
 
Do you remember anything about TEDxOdense last year?
 
Bjarne: I can remember it, yes but not when or where it was.
One year after your TEDxTalk – has anything changed?
 
Bjarne: No, not really.
René: Well actually a little.
Bjarne: Really?
René: After Bjarne’s TEDxOdense talk, we reached out to UCN, a university in Aalborg, using our TEDx talk as an example. They were really interested and we’ve given 3 talks about Bjarne for them. Also, for Bjarne personally, there is the fact that his family all sat together at Christmas and watched his TEDxOdense talk.
Bjarne: Yes, my mother and I were the only ones sober, and the rest were so enthusiastic about it and clapping.
René: There’s also one thing Bjarne always remembers about TEDx.
Bjarne: Hmm… It was full of young people?
René: and there was a red dot on the floor. And a big applause.
Bjarne: I remember the applause yes. There wouldn’t be much point if I didn’t remember that.
René: Not much else has changed after Bjarne’s talk though. I like to show the video of his TEDxOdense talk to Bjarne when he’s feeling down. It’s a useful tool to remind him of the talks he has been giving – to help him remember the great things he has been doing.
What is the next step?
 
René: We are looking for more speaking opportunities for Bjarne. To achieve this, we are planning to advertise to “loger”/societies about Bjarne as a speaker.
Bjarne: Now that my children are grown up and I don’t have to pay child support, I would like to save up to visit my brother in China.
What is the hardest thing for you to do?
 
René: What we’re doing today is the hardest thing for Bjarne to do: to remember.
Bjarne: Just the fact that I am sitting here and speaking English with new people is so difficult for me that I will probably be out for two days.
René: It’s true, Bjarne’s brain has to work very hard because of the damage, so he tires quickly. His normal day involves only 6 hours of time awake.
Could you tell us a little about your experience with the preparations for the event and the experience of speaking on the stage of TEDxOdense?
 
René: Every time Bjarne and I give a talk, I never quite know what Bjarne will say. It’s always changing. We ended up not doing the speaker training that was planned before the event because Bjarne was really getting worried, trying to prepare for the talk. We decided to just see how it goes on the day of the event.
Bjarne: I’m retired, but I used to be a big boss! It’s nice to feel I can contribute something again.
The theme of this year’s event is “My Other Side”. Do you have an “other side” to your condition?
 
Bjarne: I read the news, in several languages. This way I can train my brain. I can still manage this – although I can’t really watch much TV.
René: It’s a lot rarer than people think that there is full memory loss. Generally, people with brain damage just have a type of memory that’s different from the way the rest of us remember. With Bjarne, people wonder why he can remember certain things but not others and that is just because his condition works in the way that he remembers things better if he has an emotional experience with them.
What is your Other Side?
 
Bjarne: People are generally quite different from each other, and after getting brain damage we become even more different. I’ve always been outgoing and extroverted – and that still holds true.
René: You’re also quite a risk-taker.
Bjarne: Yes, I want things to be new and go fast. This has always been my strong side, but it’s hard to take advantage of this side of me because of the kind of brain damage I have. I can’t be around people much anymore and I can’t really go out because it requires so much effort just to figure out where I am and what I’m doing there.
Do you have any advice to others with short term memory loss?
 
Bjarne: One of the hardest things for me has been to realize that I’m brain damaged, and I don’t have to do anything. To anyone in a similar situation, I would say that even though it’s hard, try to get to a point where you accept this and decide to make the best out of life as soon as possible.
What have you learned from your experiences?
 
Bjarne: I’ve experienced what it’s like to be at both extremes. Before my brain damage occurred, I was working and traveling as a businessman. I had a huge house outside of Copenhagen with a pool and sauna. In contrast to this, now I can barely visit my sons in Aarhus and I live in a small apartment in Hjallese with a view of a playground where there aren’t even any kids playing right now. The gap between my wealth then and now is huge, but my well-being and happiness aren’t much different. Even with brain damage I know from experience that money doesn’t buy happiness - although it sure is nice!
How did you two come to be on the TEDxOdense red dot?
 
René: Well, it started a long time ago when I was trying to figure out what activities Bjarne could do. He was very much against my first ideas, which included things like playing badminton. We tried out giving talks because this is something that suits Bjarne’s personality more. The first speaking engagement we did was for Odense kommune. It was at this speaking engagement that we met Adam and he invited us to speak at TEDxOdense. I was the only one of us two really getting nervous when I found out we were going to be speaking on the stage of Odense theatre. Bjarne is more accustomed to this kind of thing because of his previous career.
Bjarne: Partly because of that, yes but also because if I make a mistake it won’t harm me in any way – I won’t even remember! If it went wrong it would only affect René’s career!
When we complimented the paintings you can see hanging over the sofa, Bjarne told us about how he used to live in a large house with an area of over 500 square meters, and all the walls were full of paintings. These few paintings, which he can fit on the walls of his small apartment, are what he has held on to, while the rest of his collection is spread out between members of his family.

That’s all for now - we hope to see you at Odense Theater on April 14th for TEDxOdense 2018! Secure your ticket here.

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