GEORGETOWN, ONT. - There are few people on earth like Jon McMurray. The Georgetown, Ont. man looks pretty ordinary from the outside. He’s married with two young boys and works part time at the local beer store. But looks are deceiving. Jon McMurray has a condition so rare, so bizarre, that it’s difficult to even comprehend. It’s called visual agnosia, sometimes referred to as face blindness.
The condition was made famous by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his 1985 book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”
When Jon looks at people, he is unable to translate what he sees with his eyes to a memory of who that person is. Visual agnosia is a neurological disorder so rare that it affects less than one per cent of patients who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury.
The first 22 years of Jon’s life were unremarkable. But everything about Jon changed when he took a road trip with friends from Ontario back to university in Nova Scotia in 1995. The car popped a tire and Jon was ejected, landing in a ditch, headfirst. Doctors weren’t sure he would survive and he was in a coma for days. When he came out of it, every single memory he ever had was wiped clean.
To this day, Jon doesn’t remember the first two decades of his life. And while he has mostly recovered from that accident all those years ago, he has never regained the ability to distinguish people’s faces.
'I SHOULD KNOW YOU'
On a recent reunion with the medical team who helped Jon rebuild his life at the Nova Scotia Rehabilitation Centre, Dr. Brenda Joyce showed Jon images of his brain, and explained the medical rarity of visual agnosia.
“Agnosias are basically the inability to perceive or understand what you’re sensing,” she explained. “It’s not because you don’t know what they are. You can’t associate that object that you’re seeing with the memory of what it is.”
Jon’s facial blindness goes far beyond just not being able to remember what acquaintances look like. One day his wife surprised him at the beer store while he was working. The woman he’s been married to for 17 years, the mother of their two children, was a complete stranger to him, until she spoke.
“He was crying and saying, ‘I have to tell you something.’” recalled Jon’s wife Allison. “He was choking back his words and said ‘I had no idea who you were. I feel so guilty. You are my wife. I should know you.’”
Picking the kids up from school amidst a sea of children presents its own problems. So Jon has developed tricks to recognize his children, like remembering what they were wearing when he dropped them off.
“Quinn is wearing a green shirt. Jack is wearing a red shirt. And then I know that that’s them,” Jon explained.
It’s not just humans. Jon’s visual agnosia extends to animals as well.
“It’s context you know. If I see someone walking something on a leash, it’s probably a dog. But if someone wanted to trick me and had a pet raccoon, then I would probably just think that’s a weird looking dog,” Jon said.
Having survived a near-death experience and overcome many of the negative effects of his brain injury has left Jon philosophical about the life he now leads.
“Having been raised again in the hospital with all the people rehabilitating, I was given a look at how it can be worse, and I lived with worse. So, I just think people should be more grateful or more appreciative of what they have, because they have memories. They’ve got their childhood. They’ve got the ability to see, hear, speak, taste. It can always be worse.”