Gerrick Reidenbach can’t smell his cat

    Gerrick Riddenbach and his cat Coal

    Gerrick Riddenbach and his cat Coal

    A skateboarding slam left Gerrick without a sense of smell, and his memories of the scents he loved are fading.

    At one time or another, you’ve probably thought about what it might be like to lose a vital part of your body or one of your five senses. Chances are, your imagination amputated something pretty big—like an arm or a leg, or your hearing or eyesight. But losing a humbler sense can also have a big impact on how you experience the world. That’s what Detroit’s Gerrick Reidenbach found out a few years ago when a freak accident left him down his sense of smell.

    “It was like 2013, so I think I was 40 years old,” Gerrick says. “And I decided to get back into skateboarding. So I have the skateboard in the back of my car, and I decide to stop outside the hardware store and skate these streets. But the roads are terrible. And having no way of anticipating it, something gets locked up, and I pirouette on my left foot and fall on my back. My head snaps down and hits the asphalt, and I’m unconscious.”

    When Gerrick came to, he thought he was okay. He didn’t even go to the doctor. But a few days later, when he was visiting his in-laws, he and his wife decided to take a dip in the hottub. And that’s when he realized that he couldn’t smell the chlorine. For the past few days, he’d been moving through the world without a sense of smell.

    “You miss it,” he says. “For example, when I adopted my newest cat, he was just a little kitten. And I know kittens have these smells—like, their mouth smells a certain way and their fur smells a certain way. And I never experienced any of that.”

    Three years after his slam, Gerrick’s sense of smell hasn’t come back. And one of the things he notices is that the list of smells he vividly remembers is growing shorter and shorter. The strongest smells are the ones that remain in his memory: Lilacs, campfires, roadkill.

    “Unless you refresh that memory, you don’t remember it. For me, those are things that aren’t real anymore. And what happens with something that isn’t real? There are times when I’ll have that sensation, and I’m like, ‘Is that accurate? Did I get it back?’ But then I test it on something really ordinary, like my cat. And I’m like, ‘No, I can’t smell the cat.'”

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal