Traveling the world, coping with episodic memory loss

     Thomas Dixon ringing in 2014, on New Year's Eve in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (photo provided by Thomas Dixon)

    Thomas Dixon ringing in 2014, on New Year's Eve in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (photo provided by Thomas Dixon)

    He remembers his life in broad strokes. Where he lives, where he grew up, and where he went to school. But, don’t ask Thomas Dixon what he had for lunch, or when he last saw his friend John.

    Dixon, of Philadelphia has severe episodic memory loss. He was hit by a car in 2010 while out for a run, and suffered a traumatic brain injury.

    At the time, he was in his twenties, a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania, with an interest in child psychiatry. He had to give up on that dream, but has found new ways to stay busy.

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    One venture is an app he’s developed to “outsource his memory” as he calls it. He’s working on a book about his experience, and he also has been able to resume his long-time hobby of traveling the world. “The icon for my app is a brain, and it’s called ME.MORY,” he explains. The app both organizes and analyzes memory entries. Dixon makes about six or seven entries every day, noting all the things he’s done.

    “I do hope that this cold I’m having is disappearing,” reads one from a recent morning. “Ate Smart Start cereal, with banana and walnut piece, smooth peanut butter, coffee with a shot of espresso as I take some with me.”

    Keeping this meticulous log allows him to later check when he last saw a certain friend, or to remind him how a recent business meeting went.

    Without this help, he can remember main guide posts, but he’s missing a lot of details.

    “What did I do yesterday? I don’t know. It’s more logic than memory. I probably was not in Cuba yesterday.”

    That said, Dixon does love to travel. Before his accident, Dixon had started visiting a new country every year around New Year’s Eve to learn about other cultures. He’s been to Japan, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates and many more. He says when he resumed his travels after his accident, it was a big relief for him. “There’s a feeling of independence and there’s a stamp of ‘you’re OK’ that I was okay enough to be abroad again.”

    Dixon doesn’t remember all of the details of his trips, but relives them through his app, which is being used by people with memory issues around the world. For this New Year’s Eve, Dixon has booked a trip to Sweden.

    Dixon will speak Saturday at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia as part of their free Celebrations around the World program.

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