A nursery nurse is unable to recognise herself or her family after a cold sore left her with the UK’s worst case of face blindness.
Hannah Read, 22, fell into a coma caused by brain inflammation encephalitis – which was triggered by a cold sore – aged just eight years old.
When she woke up, Ms Read, from Ringwood, Hampshire, failed to recognise the faces of her friends and family.
Ms Read was diagnosed with prosopagnosia – or face blindness – and still sees every face as just ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’ years later.
Specialists told nursery nurse Ms Read she has the worst case of face blindness in the UK and there is no cure for the condition – but she still hopes she may improve.
Hannah Read, 22, (pictured) is unable to recognise herself or her family after a cold sore left her with the UK’s worst case of face blindness
Ms Read (left with her mother, and right as a child) fell into a coma caused by brain inflammation encephalitis – which was triggered by a cold sore – aged just eight years old and was put on life support. When she woke up, Ms Read, from Ringwood, Hampshire, failed to recognise the faces of her friends and family
Ms Read has to get the children she looks after at work to wear name badges, and memorises her colleagues favourite clothes as their faces all look the same to her.
What is prosopagnosia, or face blindness?
Prosopagnosia is a neurological disorder characterised by the inability to recognise people’s faces.
Also known as ‘face-blindness’, the severity of the condition depends on the degree of impairment a person suffers.
Some people with prosopagnosia may only struggle to recognise a familiar face, while others will be unable to discriminate between unknown faces, and in more severe cases sufferers cannot distinguish a face as being different from an object.
Some sufferers are unable to recognise their own faces.
The condition is not related to memory loss, impaired vision or learning disabilities.
It is thought to be the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus – a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate facial perception and memory.
Prosopagnosia can result from stroke, traumatic brain injury, or some neurodegenerative diseases.
In some cases the condition is congenital, and present at birth.
It appears to run in families, which makes it likely to be the result of a genetic mutation or deletion.
Some degree of prosopagnosia is often found in children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.
Treatment of the condition focuses on helping sufferers develop compensatory strategies, including relying on voice recognition, clothing, or unique physical attributes.
Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, comedian Stephen Fry and former Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt are among those who have admitted suffering from face blindness.
When she plays sport with friends, 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.
Ms Read’s visual perception means she cannot watch TV, and when online dating she couldn’t see if the person on the profile was the person who showed up.
She has now settled down with boyfriend Dan Hancock.
Encephalitis can be triggered by any virus – including Covid-19 – and Ms Read hopes to raise awareness of this largely-unknown yet potentially-fatal reaction to an infection.
Ms Read 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.’
Ms Read fell ill in August 2006, when she flew to Gran Canaria on holiday with her family. On 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, [and then] I became unconscious.’
Ms Read’s father 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 the cold sore virus.
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.
Ms Read 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.’
Ms Read came out of her coma after a couple of days, but it was weeks later that she showed signs of her brain functioning.
She was flown home and transferred to Southampton General Hospital.
Ms Read said: ‘I can’t remember anything from before I got ill or even going back home.
Ms Read’s visual perception means she cannot watch TV, and when online dating she couldn’t see if the person on the profile was the person who showed up. She has now settled down with boyfriend Dan Hancock (pictured together)
Ms Read (far left, with her parents and sisters) was diagnosed with prosopagnosia – or face blindness – and still sees every face as just ‘two eyes, a nose and a mouth’ years later
‘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.’
Encephalitis: Devastating brain condition that leads to memory loss
Encephalitis is an uncommon but serious condition in which the brain becomes inflamed.
It can be life-threatening and requires urgent treatment in hospital.
The illness can be caused by viral infections or a problem with a person’s immune system.
Some strains of the illness are spread by mosquito.
Encephalitis can starts with flu-like symptoms, such as a high temperature and headache.
It is not infectious but can take a long time to fully recover from.
Some patients are left with long-term problems including, memory loss, frequent seizures personality and behavioural changes problems with attention and persistent tiredness.
Ms Read was in hospital for two more weeks re-learning how to walk and talk, but was discharged when there was nothing more the doctors could do to aid her development.
It wasn’t until then that her parents noticed there 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.
Ms Read 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!’
There wasn’t a neurologist in England that specialised in face blindness at that time, so her family contacted Dr Brad Duchaine from Dartmouth College in the US.
He diagnosed her with face blindness, or prosopagnosia, and said there was no cure.
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 Ms Read she had the most-severe case in the UK.
The lack of understanding has inspired Ms Read to keep raising awareness of encephalitis and face blindness, which can be contracted through any viral infection, including Covid-19.
The Encephalitis Society have seen several reports of coronavirus-positive patients developing meningo-encephalitis.
It said early data suggests Covid has neurological complications in around 30 per cent of patients.