He was sent to the neurology ward, where he underwent a week of grueling MRIs and CT scans, spinal taps and blood tests. Doctors found no physical injuries. Next came a week of observation in the psychiatric ward. “They wanted to make sure this wasn’t a put-on job,” says Jeff, who took IQ tests and solved puzzles. Under hypnosis he told doctors his wife and children had been killed by a drunk driver. In fact, Jeff’s ex-wife, Melanie, was still alive, and they had no children; experts say it’s not unusual for patients to come up with false memories under hypnosis.
Tantalizingly, Jeff said he remembered his wife’s first name: Penny.
The real Penny still had no idea that her fiancé was alive in a hospital in Denver, where officials were now referring to him as Amnesia Al. By then, hospital staffers had summoned police to help search for his identity. They ran his fingerprints through crime databases, but nothing matched.
Jeff didn’t know it, but on October 18 he turned 40. Penny made him a cake. Friends and family continued to scour Washington State and western Canada for signs of him. They checked banking and telephone records (no activity) and even asked if Jeff’s cell phone could be located with tracking technology (it couldn’t).
Back at the hospital, staffers realized they could do no more for Jeff, and he was transferred to a halfway house. Most of the tenants were mentally ill or had drug dependencies. “They all had Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous,” says Jeff, “but there was no Anonymous Anonymous for me to go to.”
As Jeff sank into despair, two Denver police detectives, Virginia Quinones and Sonny Jackson, decided to publicize his plight, hoping a relative would come forward. “I felt for the guy because everybody has memories to talk about,” says Quinones, “but he had nothing to share.”
On October 22 Jeff walked into a Denver studio to appear on network news. “I’m asking for help to find out who I am,” he said to the cameras.
The phone rang that morning at Penny’s house. It was her brother Greg: “Jeff’s on TV!”
Within minutes, Penny was e-mailing photos of Jeff to Denver police.
“They start laying pictures out on the table,” says Jeff, “and I’m just shocked. I’m going, ‘That’s me, and that’s me, and that’s me.’ And I just started bawling my face off. ‘Somebody knows I’m here!’”
That afternoon, Jeff and Penny spoke on the telephone.
“Do you remember me?” Penny asked.
“Well, I am Penny, and I am your fiancée. We used to know each other quite well.”
Aristotle believed that memory resides in the heart, and you won’t get much argument from Jeff and Penny. On Sunday evening, Jeff and Detective Jackson boarded a plane for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Waiting in the terminal, Penny was frightened. What if Jeff didn’t want her? “Everybody said, ‘He fell in love with you once, he’ll fall in love with you again,’” she recalls. “But the what-if was there.” She told herself she would let him go if that’s what he wanted, and they met and hugged for the first time, again.
“I’ve been looking for you,” said Jeff.
“I’ve been looking for you too,” said Penny between tears.
They’d been apart for 47 days—a lifetime to Jeff. And even though he had no memory of Penny, his heart was his guide. “That’s all I had to go on,” he says. “I had to trust something. And it just felt right.”
When they arrived home, Taco the Chihuahua practically leaped into Jeff’s arms. Bedtime was only briefly awkward. Intent on giving Jeff the space he needed, Penny said, “I can go to the spare room or you can go to the spare room …”
“No,” said Jeff. He just wanted to be hugged and touched.