Harford woman to be featured on 'Unsolved Mysteries'

March 13, 1991|By Henry Scarupa

At the age of 39, Sarah DeGennaro suffered a massive stroke that blotted 16 years of life from her memory.

Surgery saved her life, but the Dundalk mother of four thought she was 23 again and that the year was 1960.

The story of her amnesia is the subject of a television segment for NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries," being filmed in Baltimore this week, through today, and due for airing early in May.

Although Ms. DeGennaro, now widowed and a resident of Harford County, has recounted her experience many times before on television, including on "Today," "Oprah Winfrey" and "To Tell the Truth," this is the first time her story is being re-enacted documentary style. She is also being interviewed for the show along with her physician, Dr. William Benedict.

"We're approaching this as a medical mystery, and not like our traditional unsolved mystery," explained the film's producer, Cynthia Buzzard. "Usually, there's a fugitive at large or [a situation where] someone can help find the missing whatever."

Yesterday morning, Ms. Buzzard and a six-man camera crew from Cosgrave/Meurer Productions of Los Angeles shot scenes of the amnesia victim struggling with a life that had gone badly out of sync. The setting was a quiet residential street of red brick row houses in North Baltimore.

With lines improvised by actress Michelle Lynn Davis of Arlington, Va., the DeGennaro character appeared baffled by the family's 1976 Pontiac Grand Prix, which to her seemed to have suddenly materialized out of the future. As the camera rolled, she poured over a manual for some sense of how to cope with the strange auto.

Other scenes filmed during the day showed Ms. DeGennaro's family, played by local actors, going through scrapbooks and old letters with her in a painstaking effort to fill in some of the blanks in her memory.

Following the stroke in 1976, Ms. DeGennaro underwent 9 1/2 hours of neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In a highly dramatic sequence, the film has re-created the brain operation at Hopkins, using not actors but an actual surgical team from the hospital.

"We did this is for accuracy," said Ms. Buzzard. "We have our roots in documentaries, and we wanted them [the medical team] to advise us on the proper procedure."

For Ms. DeGennaro, who feels gratitude to the hospital that saved her life, the upcoming TV segment will allow her to say thanks once again.

"I want everyone to know all the help I had and how terrific Hopkins is," she said. "It's full of nice people. I imagine the people in heaven are just like that."

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