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Student learning to live with amnesia

Nathalie Nazario (in striped shirt) poses with friends by one of the billboards featuring her image.

Nathalie Nazario was popular, friendly and always on the go. The Seminole State College of Florida student loved dancing, pranking friends and playing volleyball, and she belonged to numerous clubs at the College’s Oviedo Campus. She had recently been chosen as secretary for the Student Government Association (SGA) at Oviedo.

That’s how Nazario’s friends and family remember her. But Nazario, 19, who is studying to become a physical therapist, doesn’t share their memories.

On Aug. 2, Nazario was heading to a restaurant for a family celebration. At a stoplight in Orlando, she was rear-ended by a car going more than 50 mph. Her injuries included a dislocated knee, hip and ankle, a concussion – and amnesia. When she woke up in the hospital, Nazario didn’t recall anything, she says. “I knew my name, but didn’t know how old I was, what year it was or who was president.”

The Orlando woman didn’t recognize her parents but assumed that’s who they were when they told her so. She recognized herself in a mirror but didn’t know what she was like.

“I’d struggle with things like, what would I wear? What would I do on a normal Saturday morning? What are my favorite foods?” Nazario says. “I had to start fresh.”

In the midst of figuring out who she is, Nazario is becoming reacquainted with old friends and making new ones, largely through her college activities.

“I just kind of meet them again – and I’ve definitely got to say, I’ve got really great friends,” she says. “They’ve stuck around and coached me through my first weeks back at school. And SGA has been a crutch for me to lean on.”

One of the most unusual events in her journey was seeing herself in a Seminole State television commercial that she had filmed in May – but had no memory of making.

The day after she left the hospital, she says, “my friends were over and we were having dinner. All of a sudden the commercial came on TV, and I screamed, 'Oh, my God! That’s me!’ I was ecstatic. It was beyond surreal seeing my face on TV.”

Then came the billboards, which are posted throughout Seminole County October through December.

Nazario, who returned to Seminole State on Aug. 27, first saw her billboard when a friend texted a picture to her a few weeks ago. Since then, she’s seen it “face to face.”

“I’ve actually had people recognize me,” she says. “People at my job have seen it; people at school have seen it.”

Seeing herself as a spokesperson for the College was uplifting, she says.

“It made me feel a little bit better about the life I had been living to see that Seminole State thought I’d be a good example of a student," she says. "It definitely lifted my spirits.”

Friends like Destiny Grooms got a kick out of Nazario’s reaction, and they relish seeing the Nathalie they knew before the accident return to them.

“It’s all coming back, slowly,” says Grooms, 19, of Altamonte Springs. “I’m seeing her more and more every day.”

Nazario says her friends and family “have been my backbone in this journey.”

“It was definitely a battle and always will be,” she says. “But I’ve got to refocus on the fact that my life could easily have been taken away, so I have to look at the bright side of it.”

At Seminole State, students can participate in more than 50 clubs and organizations. For more information, please visit the Student Life website.

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