A mum who cannot remember her wedding day or her daughters’ childhoods has revealed that she keeps track of her life with 34,000 photos.
After suffering from meningitis aged 10, Natalie Bamford's ability to store memories was so severely affected that she has forgotten huge chunks of her life – including her childhood, meeting her husband, her wedding day and her two daughters’ first steps.
The mum-of-two contracted the more dangerous bacterial form of meningitis as a child, causing doctors to fear they would have to amputate her legs and her family prepared to say their goodbyes at her hospital bedside.
But despite knowing her memory will never fully recover, Bamford has an extraordinarily positive outlook and now keeps track of her life with husband Adam, 34, and daughters Lola, 13, and Poppy, three, with the help of endless lists, journals and an archive of 34,000 photos and videos.
“I feel extremely lucky to be alive. I could have died or lost my limbs, so I’m grateful my memory is the only issue I am left with," Bamford explains.
“I’ve got so much to be thankful for in my life, and my attitude is that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Due to her poor memory, Bamford's only knowledge of having bacterial meningitis aged 10 comes from being told the story by her parents Hannah and Stephen O’Brien, both 60.
Having spent the day feeling unwell, Bamford's worried parents called the doctor out to see her, and she got the all-clear.
But her condition deteriorated.
“The only thing I remember is having the worst headache I have ever experienced. My parents said I hallucinated that ladybirds and Duplo bricks were dancing on the walls,” she says.
Recognising the tell-tale signs of meningitis, such as a stiff neck and an aversion to bright lights, her parents called the doctor again and she was rushed to Derby Children’s Hospital.
Within hours of reaching the hospital, her mum found a rash around her now-unconscious daughter’s ankle.
“Mum thought I might have been bitten by fleas at first – she could see the rash moving up my leg from my feet. It must have been like something from a horror film," Bamford reveals.
“The nurses immediately recognised it as a symptom of septicaemia so they knew I had meningitis too.”
After two terrifying days, medication brought the septicaemia under control and Natalie was moved out of intensive care.
But she was not out of the woods yet.
“Because of the trauma it had put on my brain, I began to have seizures so I was taken back into intensive care,” Bamford explains.
“After lots of brain scans and CT scans, I was diagnosed with epilepsy brought on by the trauma to my brain.”
Bamford says she had seizures up until age 12 when they suddenly stopped and she was given the all clear.
But it soon became apparent that lasting damage had been done to her memory.
While she was able to function in day-to-day life, passing her school exams, it took its toll when she was studying to become a nurse at university.
“I struggled to learn. I had to make so many notes to retain any information," she explains.
“At one point I started to write my name and forgot how to spell it for a good couple of minutes; I told my parents and they were really worried."
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Having dropped out of university after her first year, Bamford started working in the hospitality sector and in 2006, aged 22, fell pregnant with Lola from a relationship that ended before her daughter’s birth.
During the pregnancy, her memory loss intensified – to the extent she could not remember Lola being born, her first words or first steps.
“Mums often talk about ‘baby brain’, this fog that sinks in when you get pregnant and have a baby, but for me it was even worse and never really left,” she says.
“When Lola was three or four and she’d ask about what she was like as a baby. I just couldn’t remember and I had to ask my parents.
“It was then that they realised the full extent of my memory loss.”
But determined not to let it get the better of her, Bamford did not see a doctor and in 2009, aged 24, she met her now husband Adam.
Sadly, she no longer remembers the details of their first date, though her husband insists that it was Bamford who invited him round to eat a pizza and watch football.
Having got engaged in July 2013, the couple married later that year but Bamford's only memories of the day come from the photos that were taken.
“Most people can think back to walking up the aisle, being on the dance floor for their first dance, eating the food," she says.
“I don’t have those memories – I just go back to my wedding photos and picture it that way.”
When Bamford became pregnant with Poppy, now three, it was like a brand new experience for her.
“Because my pregnancies were 10 years apart, I felt like a new mum all over again," she says.
“Obviously I knew I had done it before and that it had been okay, but other than that I had no experience to draw from.
“Some people know dates of their child’s first steps, what their first words were, their first times eating solids – but I just cannot recall it," she continues.
“So I have written it all down in journals, so if the girls ask me about anything, like what they said they wanted to be when they were older, I can find it out.
“I know it’s not the same, but it’s the only way I can share some memories of their childhood.”
Over the years, Bamford has amassed a huge photo collection to replace her memory too, hoarding 34,000 pictures and videos of holidays, milestone events, her day-to-day life and screenshots of important information.
“I’m constantly taking photos, or asking my husband to take ones with me in them so I can see a different perspective when I look back at them," she says.
After being furloughed from her job at a technology company in May 2020, Bamford and her husband set up Colleague Box, an online personalised gift box service primarily targeted at businesses, and the company is now thriving.
“I have to be super-organised at work, so I just make list after list and tick things off as I go,” she says.
While she admits to having the odd day where her memory loss gets her down, Bamford says with the support of her family she's determined to live life to the full.
“Having that brush with death aged 10 has definitely made me live more in the moment, because I don’t know what’s round the corner,” she says.
“My memory might get worse, so I live life for today, making the most of every opportunity that comes my way.”
Additional reporting PA Real Life.