Bride-to-be, 25, lost her memory to a rare brain infection

Bride-to-be, 25, loses her memory after developing a rare brain condition that left her unable to recognise her own family and friends

  • Fran Geall, 25, from Falmouth in Cornwall, developed encephalitis in March
  • Doctors don’t know how she got the condition, which causes brain swelling
  • She had a seizure then spent a week in a coma, forgetting almost everything
  • Now Miss Geall has had to quit her dream job and relearn basic skills
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A bride-to-be forgot almost everything about her life and had to quit her dream job after suffering from a rare brain condition.

Fran Geall couldn’t remember anything she’d learnt during five years of university and didn’t recognise some of her closest friends and relatives.

Miss Geall, 25, from Falmouth in Cornwall, developed encephalitis, which causes potentially deadly swelling of the brain. 

She thought her headaches that left bed-bound were just migraines. But she took a turn for the worse when she had a seizure in March this year.

After spending a week in a coma, Miss Geall is still relearning how to do basic tasks and says everything she learned has been wiped away ‘like chalk on a blackboard’.

Fran Geall, 25, developed the autoimmune condition encephalitis in March which made her immune system attack her brain – she spent a week in an induced coma and woke up ‘a different person’

Miss Geall (pictured right, with fiancée Stacey Tonkins, 29) forgot most of what she knew about the people around her but said she still felt instinctive connections to people like her partner, parents and siblings

Miss Geall says she woke up from her coma an ‘entirely different person’ and has had to rebuild relationships with her niece and her partner’s family.

‘With people I’m told I’ve known for years, it can be like meeting them for the first time, which is really sad,’ Miss Geall said.

‘I also feel like I’m meeting myself again, because I have absolutely no idea who I was before all this was.

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‘People say there’s a new Fran, that I’m a different person and they’re having to accept that. I’m not so sure if I like the new Fran, though. 

‘All I want is to get back to the old me, who achieved so much and built so many loving relationships.’ 

Doctors don’t know what triggered her condition, but she had the autoimmune version of the encephalitis, which causes the immune system to attack the brain. It can be caused by an infection.    

As ‘old Fran,’ Miss Geall completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology and a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture – a £50,000 education. 

Miss Geall has had to rebuild her relationships with some of her closest family and relatives (pictured with her niece, Lyla, after her illness)

Miss Geall (left, with Miss Tonkins) who trained as a marine biologist, forgot everything she learned during five years of university but has started to read back through her work and is determined to get her knowledge back

In December 2015, she got engaged to marry the love of her life, teacher Stacey Tonkins, 29, who she had met at university in 2014.

Keen to work in ethical farming, in January 2018 she landed her dream job working as a business development manager for an oyster company in Whitstable, Kent.

But her happiness was shattered in March this year, when she began suffering with migraines so crippling that she was forced to stay in bed for a week.

She saw her GP and once visited A&E, but doctors thought she had pulled a muscle in her neck, as she could not put her chin to her chest.


Encephalitis is an uncommon but serious condition in which the brain becomes inflamed (swollen).

It can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital.

Anyone can be affected, but the very young and very old are most at risk.

Encephalitis sometimes starts off with flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature and headache, but these don’t always occur.

More serious symptoms develop over hours, days or weeks, including: confusion or disorientation, seizures (fits), changes in personality and behaviour or loss of consciousness.

Dial 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else has these more serious symptoms. 

It’s not always clear what causes encephalitis, but it can be caused by viral infections. Several common viruses can spread to the brain and cause encephalitis in rare cases, including the herpes simplex virus (which causes cold sores and genital herpes) and the chickenpox virus.

Source: NHS 

Then, also in March, she began having a seizure in bed and it became clear something was very wrong.

Her partner, Miss Tonkins, called an ambulance to rush her straight to Kent’s Ashford Hospital, where she was immediately put into an induced coma. 

Waking up a week later, Miss Geall seemed like a completely different person.

Unable to read, walk or speak for several weeks, she is still having to relearn many basic life skills.

‘Doing the simplest things, like using a computer or navigating around a supermarket have now become very difficult,’ said Miss Geall.

‘But what is heartbreaking for me is that my intellect, which was like my superpower, is now gone.

‘And all the years I spent learning facts and learning about the natural world has been wiped out like chalk on a blackboard.’

Despite having some memories of her life before her brain condition, Miss Geall said she still feels an instinctive emotional link to many of her loved ones like Miss Tonkins, her parents and her siblings.

But she has no recollection at all of her sisters-in-law or her niece and is now having to rebuild these relationships from scratch.

She said: ‘When Stacey and my family visited me in hospital, I knew instinctively that they were people I loved, but I couldn’t remember anything about them, apart from very minimal, basic details.

‘They would show me photos of old times together and it wouldn’t jog anything – it’s like looking at someone else’s life.

Miss Geall (pictured in hospital with her mother, Jo, and Miss Tonkins) couldn’t walk or speak when she woke up from her coma and has had to relearn basic skills all over again – she could write before she could say words out loud

‘I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t walk and I had no idea who anyone around me was or what had happened to me.’

Slowly, her faculties began to return, although Miss Geall could write before she could talk.  

‘I don’t know why, but the first thing I was able to write down was my mum’s telephone number. 

‘I couldn’t remember anything, but for some reason I could remember that,’ she said.

‘The second thing I wrote was, “things are a jumble”.

‘My friends and family tried to communicate by speaking and writing things down, too, but I couldn’t understand anything.’

Things gradually improved when Miss Geall was given a plasma exchange ten days after being admitted to hospital.

Miss Geall (pictured with parents Jo and Dave at a wedding in 2015) did not realise how seriously ill she was until she had a seizure in March this year. She had been bed-bound with migraines but medics thought she had injured her neck

Pictured together at Boardmasters Festival in Newquay in 2016, Miss Geall and Miss Tonkins got engaged to be married in December 2015 after they met at university the year before

The procedure replaced the white blood cells in her immune system which had been attacking her brain.

After that, her speech recovered and she started writing a daily diary, although it did not trigger any memories.

Discharged from hospital after five weeks and determined to get back to normal, Miss Geall returned to work.

Within a few days, however, it became clear she wouldn’t be able to stay when she had a major seizure.

‘I realised then that my recovery would take a lot longer than I had imagined,’ Miss Geall explained.

‘The doctors have no idea if I will ever regain my memories, so I’m living with the prospect of potentially having to relearn everything I ever knew.’

Miss Geall (pictured with her friend, Helen, on holiday) says doctors don’t know if she will ever get her memories back so she is now rebuilding relationships with people close to her and trying to relearn what she studied at university

Now based in Falmouth, near Miss Tonkins’s family, who are helping to support her and her fiancée, Miss Geall – who once spent a few years studying in the seaside town – is putting all her energy into her recovery

She said: ‘When I’m out people will sometimes come up to me and say hello, as they recognise me from when I lived here before.

‘Obviously, they don’t know what I’ve been through. I have no idea who they are, but I still smile and pretend to know them.

‘We only have a brief conversation, so they’re usually none the wiser. 

‘If I talk to anyone for longer, they can usually tell something isn’t quite right, so I tell them what happened.’

Miss Geall (pictured with her partner, Miss Tonkins, and their dog, Rio) says she’s ‘not sure if I like the new Fran’ and admits it’s difficult to know she isn’t the same person she used to be, but says it feels good when people tell her there are parts of her old self shining through

Seizures meant Miss Geall had to quit her ‘dream job’ at the Whitstable Oyster Company in Kent and move to Falmouth in Cornwall to be near Miss Tonkins’s family, who are helping her recover

One thing Miss Geall didn’t lose is her hunger for knowledge – she is now reading up on everything she learnt at university, keen to retain it.

Although she can only study for short periods, as the mental exertion can trigger seizures. 

Doctors have no idea what caused her encephalitis, and Miss Geall often blames herself for what has happened.

She said: ‘In a way, I feel like it’s my fault. There’s no logic to that whatsoever, but if I tell myself that it’s just unfair, it puts me into a spiral of depression.

‘Telling myself that there was some reason behind it lets me think that I can somehow get better and move on, even though no one seems to know if I’ll ever have my memory back.’

Although the future remains uncertain, Miss Geall is delighted when people tell her they still see signs of the person she used to be.

She said: ‘People say that I used to crack a lot of jokes, and I’m starting to do that again now.

‘But I suppose when you’re in a situation like mine, what else can you do?’ 

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