A Geek’s Story: How Technology Got Me Through a Near Death Experience

I alluded to a personal story in my last article. It’s not a time in my life that I enjoy looking back upon — nor sharing with others, so I’d ask for your understanding when you comment. My family and close friends know of this experience, but I haven’t shared it with many people, not even the Pocketnow staff.

Why do I share it now? Simply put, it’s how I used technology to assist me during my recovery. Technology has changed since then, but maybe someone out there can gain some insight — and maybe even some hope — from reading about what another geek did to overcome challenges during the healing process.


In the mid-1990s I came down with a pretty nasty case of influenza while traveling to the Spanish Consulate in Los Angeles, California to receive a Visa. It was a flu, no big deal, right? The next morning I had a very high fever an went to the clinic. They confirmed it was the flu and prescribed an anti-viral. Apparently my body didn’t like the medication and it caused some pretty funky side-effects: hallucinations, lack of appetite, and I stopped drinking. For days I didn’t eat or drink anything, but I didn’t know it, because in the hallucinations I was eating and drinking anything I wanted.

After three days my friends took me back to the clinic and I was immediately rushed to local emergency room. Two liters of saline drip, two CT scans (with and without contrast), and a spinal tap later there was good news! I didn’t have spinal meningitis, however, the contrast CT scan showed an area in the brain that was “concerning”.

The diagnosis: acute encephalitis. “Acute”, okay, so it wasn’t that bad — or so I thought at the time.

Luckily the saline drip was able to re-hydrate me and I stabilized quickly. I was later sent home to recover under the watchful eyes of my parents. Though the underlying cause of my illness had been identified and resolved, I still suffered after-effects. The hallucinations persisted along with alternate realities, and I developed short-term memory loss.

I’m not easily frightened, but this terrified me.

The doctors later told me that, had I not been rushed to the ER that day, I probably would have died that night due to the dehydration and the high fever.

Technology to the Rescue

As time progressed — which I didn’t have much awareness of due to the problems with my memory — I began to realize my limitations, and took action to address the problems. One of my biggest concerns was missing appointments due to my problem with identifying the passage of time. I decided I needed an electronic organizer (or “PDA”) that would be able to audibly alert me before my meetings and appointments. I could also use it to take notes that I’d review every morning to help with my memory loss.

Back then there were only a couple options: Palm and Newton. I tried them both, but couldn’t get the hang of Palm’s “chicken scratch” input method, and with my memory problems I didn’t want to risk learning and forgetting how to get data into it. The Newton, however, let me hand-write, and it was pretty decent translating my writing. I bought the MessagePad 130. It was my life-line.

I wrote everything in my Newton. I bought a printer cable so I could print my notes. I bought a keyboard so I could enter my notes faster. I used it to email, I used it to keep my appointments, I used it a lot.

Along Came a Girl

I didn’t get past my short-term memory loss for months, but in that time I met a girl. I was 19 years old and she was the best friend I’d ever had. She looked past my medical issues and saw the person inside. But I couldn’t remember her. I couldn’t remember conversations we’d had or places we’d gone together. I started writing everything down in my Newton.

Every day before I’d talk to her I’d re-read my notes, and re-familiarize myself with this young woman in my life. Some time passed and our friendship was growing stronger. I made a conscious effort to note every important detail in my Newton.

One day she asked why I was “scribbling notes so much”. She knew about my condition, but didn’t know what I had been doing to mitigate the symptoms. I don’t know if she was flattered or embarrassed by the fact that I’d been detailing our time together. She asked if she could read what I’d written.

I was mortified.

The majority of my notes had been written by someone else — or so it seemed, since I had no memory of writing them myself. I let her read my notes.

“Met a girl. Natalie. Sweet girl. Blonde hair. Very pretty. Should probably date her again.”

That’s how it all started. She read for what seemed like an eternity, then with tears in her eyes, she asked if I’d really written all that, and if that’s how I felt about her. “I don’t remember writing most of it, but yes, that’s how I feel.”

That Was 16 Years Ago

Since that fateful night when my Newton expressed my feelings that I couldn’t remember we got engaged, we married, bought a house together, and now have a handful of children. I don’t have hallucinations any more, and my short-term memory has mostly returned. I still have a difficult time gauging time, and still take notes and set alarms in my “personal digital assistant”.

I don’t have my Newton any more, it’s long-since been replaced by other technology. Today I use my Android-powered smartphone and tablet to keep track of appointments, remind me of important dates, communicate with those I love, and take notes of the important details.

Even with everything technology can do today, I can’t help but think back with fondness upon that little green tablet that got me thought a very difficult time, and helped me remember the love of my life.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.