Barbara Walker revels in the aroma of Nina’s Wood Fired Pizza while on a smelling adventure at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in March in Dade City. After decades without a sense of smell, she has devoted herself to trying to train her ability back.

For decades, a Florida woman had no sense of smell. Can she get it back?

As the pandemic stole millions of people’s “fifth sense,” Barbara Walker’s seemed to be coming back. But why?
Barbara Walker revels in the aroma of Nina’s Wood Fired Pizza while on a smelling adventure at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in March in Dade City. After decades without a sense of smell, she has devoted herself to trying to train her ability back. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
 
As the pandemic stole millions of people’s “fifth sense,” Barbara Walker’s seemed to be coming back. But why?
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

PALM HARBOR — The first smell was lemon.

At least she thought it was lemon.

Barbara Walker hadn’t smelled a thing in 34 years.

Then, on a spring afternoon, she stood on her patio by the pool and caught a whiff of hope.

The light was low, the air warm. A sticky breeze ruffled the cypress trees. In the aviary outside the sliding doors, her rescued pigeons were cooing.

Walker, then 55, had just bought a new medical marijuana cartridge for her vape pen, a strain called “super lemon haze.”

She pushed the button. Closed her eyes. Breathed in.

The taste exploded, tart and cool. Then suddenly, the scent crept up her nose. Another hit, and she felt she was in a lemon orchard.

Maybe she was just tasting the vapor?

She walked out of the lanai, through the yard. The closer she got to her actual lemon tree, the stronger the aroma seemed. She inhaled its branches, leaves, flowers, immersing herself in the fresh, biting fragrance, overcome.

At dinner, she couldn’t contain herself. “I think I’m starting to smell again!”

Her teenage daughters were skeptical. After all these years?

Her husband laughed. “You’re hallucinating.”

No, she insisted that evening in 2021. “I smelled the blooms.”

• • •

If you had to give up one of your senses …

Barb hates that question.

Try not being able to sniff whether your hamburger has spoiled, your sneakers stink, your house is on fire. What if you could never smell your granddad’s cigar? Your lover beside you? Your baby’s sweet feet?

Barb lost her sense of smell at age 21, after a car accident — just as she was starting to find herself.

She tried to pretend nothing had changed. Some people didn’t believe her, shoving sour milk in her face. Others shrugged her off: It’s just smell.

Even philosophers have discounted the sense.

Eyes and ears are much more necessary than noses, Plato said. Centuries later, Immanuel Kant dubbed smell the “most dispensable” sense.

The international charity for people with smell disorders calls itself “Fifth Sense” — last, if not least.

But Barb’s loss left her with a sense that something profound was missing: “I never felt whole.”

The science of smell has shown it’s intimately tied to essential elements of everyday life: safety and taste, mood and memory.

When Barb thought she might be beginning to smell again, she became obsessed. She was almost sure she could detect some scents, even without vaping.

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She ordered smell training kits, joined support groups, sniffed her way through parks and stores. Her bathroom became a laboratory of lotions and soaps. She studied olfactory science, explored experimental surgeries, a bionic nose — anything to finally feel complete.

Barbara Walker has turned her dining room table into a smell laboratory, where she tries to sniff all sorts of scents. Medical marijuana, she thinks, is helping her regain her sense of smell. Here, in December 2022, she vapes a Tangerine Dream cannabis cartridge.
Barbara Walker has turned her dining room table into a smell laboratory, where she tries to sniff all sorts of scents. Medical marijuana, she thinks, is helping her regain her sense of smell. Here, in December 2022, she vapes a Tangerine Dream cannabis cartridge. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
For more than a year, Barbara Walker kept a journal of scents she thought she could detect and tried to group the smells by colors they conjured. She shared the notes during an August appointment with Jeb Justice, an otolaryngologist and co-director of the UF Health Smell Disorders Program in Gainesville.
For more than a year, Barbara Walker kept a journal of scents she thought she could detect and tried to group the smells by colors they conjured. She shared the notes during an August appointment with Jeb Justice, an otolaryngologist and co-director of the UF Health Smell Disorders Program in Gainesville. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

And she discovered the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste.

As the pandemic ramped up the urgency around unlocking the mysteries of smell, calls to the Gainesville research clinic increased tenfold.

Barb couldn’t get an appointment for months.

Every week, while she waited, she wrote in a notebook scents she thought she had detected: paint thinner, dirt, her daughter’s damp hair.

• • •

Childhood smelled like salty waves, musty shorebirds, Sea & Ski suntan lotion. Growing up on Treasure Island, Barb said, the beach overpowered every other scent — except when her mother’s gardenias bloomed.

“But it’s been a long time,” she said, “since I could remember the actual smells.”

Summers were jet fuel, strong coffee, leather sofas. Dad. He would pick Barb up at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. An Army veteran, he had moved to Europe and become a sommelier after he and her mom split. He took pride in teaching his daughter to distinguish subtle notes in wine and perfume.

“I could stand on the street and, when a woman walked by, tell what fragrance she was wearing,” Barb said. She learned to differentiate White Shoulders from White Linen, Shalimar from Chanel No. 5.

Barbara Walker's dad, Harold Simpson, holds her at a U.S. Army housing complex in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1964. He was a warrant officer, then a wine steward. Barb grew up on Treasure Island with her mom but spent summers in Europe with her dad.
Barbara Walker's dad, Harold Simpson, holds her at a U.S. Army housing complex in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1964. He was a warrant officer, then a wine steward. Barb grew up on Treasure Island with her mom but spent summers in Europe with her dad. [ PICTURE COURTESY OF BARBARA WALKER | Picture courtesy of Barbara Walker ]

In her bedroom, she keeps a shrine: ivory shelves lined with perfumes her dad gave her every birthday, every holiday. Glass bottles filled with memories she hasn’t been able to access since 1986.

She was 21 then, in community college, working at K-Mart. Curious and confident, she loved biking and roller skating. On dates, she wore Estée Lauder Youth Dew because it seemed sophisticated, “like old money.”

One night, after a dinner date at Bennigan’s, her boyfriend was driving his GMC Jimmy on Seminole Boulevard when headlights pierced the intersection — a vehicle in the wrong lane.

Barb felt the tires swerve, then hit the median, flipping their SUV.

“I don’t remember going through the windshield,” she said.

Her boyfriend escaped with bruises. Barb spent almost a month in the hospital and endured nine surgeries, a crushed elbow and fractured skull.

In 1986, Barbara Walker worked at Kmart, went to community college and enjoyed biking with her boyfriend, Michael Wheeler.
In 1986, Barbara Walker worked at Kmart, went to community college and enjoyed biking with her boyfriend, Michael Wheeler. [ PICTURE COURTESY OF BARBARA WALKER | Picture courtesy of Barbara Walker ]

It wasn’t until she got home, picked the last gravel and glass out of her scalp, showered and sprayed on her favorite perfume that she realized: I can’t smell.

She spritzed Jean Nate After Bath Splash on her wrist. Nothing. Sniffed the hand soap, the flowery shampoo. Nothing! Bleach: Not a hint.

Since the accident, everything had felt flatter, like all the color had been drained.

Now she realized why. Without smell, the world had lost a dimension.

A few weeks later, a neurologist told Barb she had suffered a traumatic brain injury, which severed her olfactory nerve. “There’s nothing else I can do for you,” he told her. “You’ll never be able to smell again.” Barb sobbed as she drove home.

• • •

Smell is perhaps the least understood sense. It’s less studied than the others, harder to test and measure.

“Doctors don’t get trained in smell,” said Steven Munger, a researcher at the University of Florida. “And there aren’t many treatment options.”

In 1998, 40 faculty members across disciplines formed the UF Center for Smell and Taste — one of the first of its kind in the country. Munger joined in 2016 as its second director.

Six years later, two American scientists won a Nobel Prize for explaining the olfactory process. Their work launched a worldwide interest in the field.

UF debuted a smell clinic in February 2018, where doctors use high-resolution nasal scopes to search for infections, inflammation, polyps, tumors. With MRIs, they check for nerve damage and brain injuries. Treatment ranges from saline rinses to surgery.

Not long after the facility opened, the world shut down.

Munger turned his research to COVID-19 — and he and his colleagues became some of the first scientists to show loss of smell could signal the virus.

About 12% of Americans — 13 million people — had a diminished or distorted sense of smell before the pandemic, a national study found.

Then, in 2021 alone, the virus robbed 20 million of their ability to smell and taste. Millions still haven’t fully recovered.

For a mysterious sense, the science is fairly straightforward: Objects emit tiny odor molecules. When you breathe in, those molecules bind to more than 400 receptors that send signals to the olfactory nerve — which connects the nose to the brain.

“And unlike the other senses that go through the thalamus,” Munger said, “smell goes straight to the region of the brain that processes memory.”

Fresh baked biscuits conjure grandma. Pine needles take you camping.

This sudden recollection of lost memories, triggered by scent, is known as the Proust effect. Dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea plunged the French novelist back into his boyhood: “A shudder ran through me and I stopped,” he wrote, “intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.”

Recalling the past can be calming, even healing. Researchers are trying to help dementia patients with aromatherapy.

In her bedroom at their Palm Harbor home, Barb keeps an elaborate perfume collection, many of which her dad sent from Europe. For more than 30 years, she couldn't smell the scents. But she loved wearing them and looking at them. The bottles — and memories — comforted her.
In her bedroom at their Palm Harbor home, Barb keeps an elaborate perfume collection, many of which her dad sent from Europe. For more than 30 years, she couldn't smell the scents. But she loved wearing them and looking at them. The bottles — and memories — comforted her. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Munger thinks everyone should be tested for smell, just like they are for vision and hearing. He has helped develop a simple scratch-and-sniff booklet for annual screenings.

In November, he presented a plan at the first international conference to push for universal smell testing.

“There are safety issues involved around not being able to smell: gas, smoke, rotten food,” Munger said. And diminished smell can be the first sign of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes.

People who lose their smell often feel disconnected, the researcher said. His patients battle malnutrition, stress, depression.

They can’t share ordinary, communal experiences, like the cloud of woodsmoke over a fire pit, at least not in the same way.

• • •

Once Barb couldn’t smell her own scent, she worried everyone else could.

She started showering three, four times a day, before school, after work, before dinner. She layered shampoos and soaps, body washes and creams, and of course perfume — all the ones she had loved. Plus the heaviest deodorants she could find.

Overdoing it, she reasoned, was better than being embarrassed.

She brushed her teeth constantly, guzzled mouthwash. Stopped hugging.

She wouldn’t — couldn’t — burn candles; she wouldn’t be able to smell smoke. She was afraid to have cats; what if the litter box stunk?

Every room in Barbara Walker's house has a different fragrance. Here, she diffuses lemon in her dining room and dives into the aroma.
Every room in Barbara Walker's house has a different fragrance. Here, she diffuses lemon in her dining room and dives into the aroma. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It was already a disorienting time. Then, a few months after the accident, while having another surgery on her elbow, she felt the doctor molesting her as she drifted into the anesthesia. She didn’t tell anyone until years later, when other patients sued and the surgeon had to give up his license.

The assault left her with nightmares. She was scared to sleep. A therapist diagnosed her with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Barb married her boyfriend, then quickly divorced. She transferred to the University of South Florida, majored in marketing. She had grown less sure of herself, more reserved.

Years later, she was working at the TV ratings company Nielsen in Dunedin, sitting in a meeting, when she saw Steve across the room. “They say people are attracted to pheromones. But I could never smell him, so it must’ve been something else,” she said.

They married in 2001. Steve got Barb a cat, promised to look after the litter box. Nine months later, their daughter Leah was born.

“Everyone always talks about how wonderful babies smell,” Barb said. “But I never got to smell mine.”

She tried to imagine her daughter’s scent: Sunshine? Piña colada?

Barb had never been able to smell her babies and felt robbed of that connection. So when she thought she might be able to smell again, she kept sniffing around them, hoping. Here, in October 2022, she leans into Leah's just-washed hair.
Barb had never been able to smell her babies and felt robbed of that connection. So when she thought she might be able to smell again, she kept sniffing around them, hoping. Here, in October 2022, she leans into Leah's just-washed hair. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Steve Walker, left, Lani Walker, Barbara Walker and Leah Walker celebrate outside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg in May, when Lani graduated from East Lake High School.
Steve Walker, left, Lani Walker, Barbara Walker and Leah Walker celebrate outside Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg in May, when Lani graduated from East Lake High School. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Until then, Steve said, he mostly forgot about Barb’s invisible disability. But after he became a dad, he said, “I’d walk in the house after work and smell diaper.”

Another daughter, Lani, came four years later. While Barb stayed home with the girls, she discovered a new passion: raptors.

She had grown up watching shorebirds, scouting island rookeries with binoculars. But after becoming enchanted by the red-shouldered hawks floating above their Palm Harbor home, then volunteering to monitor an eagle nest, she felt a deeper connection — a responsibility.

She started Tampa Bay Raptor Rescue. Soon, she was getting calls from across Pinellas County, renting bucket trucks to save baby ospreys, setting a hawk’s broken wing.

“Birds became my therapy,” Barb said. “Humans cause bad things to happen to them. Anything I can do to make up for that, to make them whole, is my honor.”

Of all the raptors Barbara Walker has rescued, Charlie the osprey is her favorite. For decades, she couldn't smell his stench or the fragrant finger mullet she fed him. Barb is director of birds of prey at Moccasin Lake Nature Park in Clearwater, where Charlie lives.
Of all the raptors Barbara Walker has rescued, Charlie the osprey is her favorite. For decades, she couldn't smell his stench or the fragrant finger mullet she fed him. Barb is director of birds of prey at Moccasin Lake Nature Park in Clearwater, where Charlie lives. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

She became president of the Clearwater Audubon Society and started helping rehab raptors at Moccasin Lake Nature Park. Since the stench of fish didn’t bother her, she dug into the role no one wanted, her hands sticky with scales as she cut up food for the birds. She’d just shower again later, scrub her skin raw.

She wasn’t worried about styling her white-blond hair and seldom wore makeup. Her wardrobe consisted of shorts and bird T-shirts.

“Mom was always on the go,” said Leah, now 21. “She’d pick us up from school and we’d have to go get a bird. Her van always smelled like osprey.”

Since she couldn't smell the fish, Barb volunteered to make the birds' meals at Moccasin Lake Nature Park. Good scents seemed to come back to her initially. Then the bad odors — like this mullet — began to seep in.
Since she couldn't smell the fish, Barb volunteered to make the birds' meals at Moccasin Lake Nature Park. Good scents seemed to come back to her initially. Then the bad odors — like this mullet — began to seep in. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Both girls kept body spray in their backpacks.

Every now and then, their mom needed them to be her nose: Check the laundry to see if it’s clean; inspect the chicken to see if it expired.

“It didn’t happen often,” Leah said. “We’d forget she couldn’t smell.”

Until Barb caught that hint of lemon.

• • •

My nose needs therapy, Barb decided.

If she started bombarding herself with all sorts of scents, maybe she could improve. “Like exercising your bicep,” she said.

On a hunch, she came up with a plan: Total immersion, one new scent every week. The first, logically, was lemon: shampoo, cologne, air fresheners — even lemon La Croix. She tried looking at a lemon, picturing a lemon, as she inhaled, and swore the smell got stronger. She tucked a lemon under her pillow, so the scent would seep in while she slept.

The next week was orange, then strawberry.

Barb had never seen herself as a stoner. But a neighbor convinced her to try medical marijuana to help her sleep. Eight months after she started vaping, she swore the cannabis helped her smell lemon. She kept experimenting with different citrus flavors.
Barb had never seen herself as a stoner. But a neighbor convinced her to try medical marijuana to help her sleep. Eight months after she started vaping, she swore the cannabis helped her smell lemon. She kept experimenting with different citrus flavors. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Barb needed a baseline, a way to measure if she really could smell and whether it might improve. She wanted to make sure she wasn’t just experiencing phantosmia: perceiving smells that aren’t there. The possibility haunted her.

At the end of summer 2022, she drove to Gainesville to meet the researchers who might be able to give her answers.

Munger’s partner, Jeb Justice, handed Barb a test booklet and tiny pencil. She swore she smelled the wood. There were no pictures to help visualize the scent on the paper, just a square to sniff and four words to choose from: apple, garlic, rubber, sandalwood.

Of 13 aromas, she got three right. She could have gotten lucky — nobody could say. “Better than nothing,” she told the doctors.

Try irrigating your nose, Justice suggested. He wrote a prescription for a saline rinse infused with steroids, told her to use it twice a day.

He wasn’t sure it would help, he admitted. But it wouldn’t hurt.

He told her to come back in a year.

• • •

Barb’s house smelled like cinnamon and pine, lily and linen — a different scent in every room.

Her family insisted the aromas didn’t bother them. But sometimes her quest became exhausting. Target runs took two hours as she followed her nose through every aisle.

But she seemed so excited. “Joyful, almost childlike,” said Lani, 18.

One afternoon, making a sandwich, peanut butter engulfed her. “I was in the cafeteria at Pasadena Elementary with my lunchbox,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about that in years.”

“My family remains skeptical,” she wrote on a forum called AbScent. “I know others here get it.”

She messaged people who had been born without smell, others who had lost theirs to COVID. They couldn’t sleep or eat. Some were so desperate they thought about ending their lives.

“If I can start getting my smell back after all this,” Barb typed, “maybe you can too.”

Barb began building her own smell training kits, infusing inhalers with essential oils. She stashed them in her purse and car so she could constantly inhale. When a friend complained of losing his smell to COVID, she made him a custom kit.
Barb began building her own smell training kits, infusing inhalers with essential oils. She stashed them in her purse and car so she could constantly inhale. When a friend complained of losing his smell to COVID, she made him a custom kit. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

She learned about the types of smell loss: hyposmia is a reduced sense; parosmia is when things smell like something else. She thought she had anosmia — no sense of smell. People who are born without smell are better off, she decided, than folks like her who know what they lost.

On a fall morning in 2022, Barb sat at her dining room table and opened yet another smell kit she had ordered. Since COVID, the industry had exploded.

This version was based on a test developed at the University of Pennsylvania, similar to the one Barb took at UF. For $28.50, she got four booklets with 40 odors. “If no smell is present,” the instructions said, “guess.”

A smell log came with one of many tests Barb ordered. For more than two years, trying to regain her sense of smell consumed her.
A smell log came with one of many tests Barb ordered. For more than two years, trying to regain her sense of smell consumed her. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Working out her nose, Barbara Walker thought, would build olfactory strength, "like exercising your bicep." She kept sniffing oils, diffusers, body sprays, lotions, perfumes, spices and coffee. She really wanted to smell coffee. Here, she takes a scratch-and-sniff smell test she ordered online.
Working out her nose, Barbara Walker thought, would build olfactory strength, "like exercising your bicep." She kept sniffing oils, diffusers, body sprays, lotions, perfumes, spices and coffee. She really wanted to smell coffee. Here, she takes a scratch-and-sniff smell test she ordered online. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Gasoline. Pizza. Peanuts. Lilac. “Smells like lilac to me,” Barb said confidently.

Dill pickles. Bubblegum. Wintergreen. Watermelon. “I don’t know,” she said. “Bubble gum?”

Whiskey. Honey. Lime. Grass.

Barb closed her eyes to concentrate. “It’s all so overwhelming, like my nose and brain are being rewired.”

After a half-hour, she rubbed her temples. On a scale of 1 to 5, she’d hit bottom. “Total anosmia.”

Barb shook her head. “I know I smell something. That test is wrong.”

Raising her glasses, she wiped her eyes.

• • •

Usually, Barb’s husband does the cooking. But just before the holidays last year, she and Leah took over the kitchen to prepare for a party at the wildlife park.

Honey chipotle wings were marinating while a batch of sweet heat sauce bubbled on the stove. Leah was steaming apples.

“Oh, it’s really cinnamony,” Barb said. “It smells like fall.”

When it came to detecting new scents, she was never sure whether she was channeling or cheating.

Maybe, her family thought, she had gotten good at guessing.

When Barb was cooking for a holiday potluck at Moccasin Lake Nature Park in December 2022, she chose dishes she wanted to smell. Sweet potatoes simmering in the crockpot brought back fall. She even thought she could detect the maple syrup.
When Barb was cooking for a holiday potluck at Moccasin Lake Nature Park in December 2022, she chose dishes she wanted to smell. Sweet potatoes simmering in the crockpot brought back fall. She even thought she could detect the maple syrup. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Smell this,” Leah said, thrusting a flask of Fireball toward her mom. “Now that’s cinnamony.”

Losing her sense of smell had impaired Barb’s ability to taste. She could tell ice cream was cold and sweet, but couldn’t differentiate between chocolate and vanilla. Texture had become paramount: crunchy foods were most appealing.

She learned that Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s suffers from anosmia. That’s why their ice cream has so many chunks.

But lately, healthier foods, like broccoli and salad, had begun tasting better. In the last year, without really trying, Barb had lost 50 pounds.

She felt younger, more confident. The world seemed more worth exploring, experiences more intense. As if she had discovered a new layer of living.

• • •

Clerks at Palm Harbor’s Trulieve dispensary know Barb and her story.

On a morning in January, the manager greeted her when she came to pick up medical marijuana vape cartridges: tangerine and strawberry. “And I’d like to talk about terpenes,” Barb said. “Which would be the best ones to look for?”

Terpenes give marijuana its taste and smell. They dictate the way that cannabinoids interact with the brain, altering mood and appetite.

The manager suggested limonene, since citrus had been Barb’s first breakthrough.

Barbara Walker picks up an order of medical marijuana from Trulieve manager Ana Diaz in Palm Harbor. She wanted to know about terpenes and which strains of cannabis might best stimulate smell.
Barbara Walker picks up an order of medical marijuana from Trulieve manager Ana Diaz in Palm Harbor. She wanted to know about terpenes and which strains of cannabis might best stimulate smell. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Because medical marijuana only recently became legal in 38 states and remains highly restricted federally, research on its benefits has only ramped up in the last two decades. A 2017 study published by the National Institutes of Health showed that it can help people combat anxiety, sleep disorders, chronic pain and nausea caused by chemotherapy. It’s also known to heighten sensory perceptions.

In Florida, for $473 a year, you can get a medical marijuana card for all of those conditions, plus epilepsy, glaucoma, PTSD, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

Barb had been reluctant to be seen as a stoner. But a neighbor convinced her it might help her insomnia.

Cannabis, Barb believed, had changed everything.

She was sleeping better; pot seemed to be staving off the nightmares. Her migraines were less severe. Her back didn’t ache as much. “My blood pressure is down,” she told the manager. “I’m learning to chill.”

After picking up her order, Barb asked to speak to a doctor from Trulieve. She wanted to ask him whether medical marijuana might really be helping her smell.
After picking up her order, Barb asked to speak to a doctor from Trulieve. She wanted to ask him whether medical marijuana might really be helping her smell. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A few weeks later, she got on Zoom with William Troutt, a naturopathic doctor and Trulieve’s lead medical director.

Could marijuana be helping her olfactory nerve grow back? Barb wanted to know.

“Well,” the doctor said from his Arizona office, “cannabinoids have been known to regenerate nerve growth.” But there just isn’t enough research yet, he said.

Most regeneration happens in the first year after a trauma, he told her. “How long ago was yours?”

Barb laughed. “Thirty-five years.”

Troutt gasped. “Unheard of. You’ll be a great case study.”

• • •

At the edge of the Renaissance Faire, beside a booth selling fish and chips, Barb checked on a buzzard named Maeve while Galahad the screech owl clutched her daughter’s shoulder. She and Lani were between shows that April Saturday, sweating in their costumes.

They were showing off birds of prey, raising money for injured raptors.

“I’m not happy,” Barb told her daughter. “That fish is making me gag.”

She had begun to pick up unpleasant scents: dirty socks, wet dog, musty air conditioning. Ketchup conjured the greasy McDonald’s she had worked at in high school. Tobacco transported her to the house of a creepy neighbor who had touched her. This flood of bad memories came by surprise; for days afterward, she couldn’t shake them.

Barb Walker, right, shows off Maeve, a European common buzzard, at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in March. Her daughter Lani, center, helped run the bird show, which was raising money to rehabilitate raptors.
Barb Walker, right, shows off Maeve, a European common buzzard, at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival in March. Her daughter Lani, center, helped run the bird show, which was raising money to rehabilitate raptors. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“I’m having to wear a mask at work now,” Barb told Lani. “After all these years, I’m going to have to get someone else to help cut up the fish.”

Barb still couldn’t smell her beloved birds. Lani had tried to describe them: Hawks are musty, eagles smell like egg yolks, osprey — Barb’s favorite — smell the worst. “Some birds,” Lani told her mom, “smell like Fritos.”

After the raptor show, Barb walked the grounds, where incense wafted from tents. Each booth brought an enticement: Leather, “like an old library couch.” A horse saddle, “like a barn.”

In one booth, she sniffed green apple oil and swooned. It was so crisp and sour, so strong, she bought a glass amulet of oil to wear around her neck.

Regaining new scents made Barb ecstatic, "almost childlike," her daughter Lani said. Here, at the Renaissance fair, she rejoiced as she smelled an essential oil labeled "Dirt."
Regaining new scents made Barb ecstatic, "almost childlike," her daughter Lani said. Here, at the Renaissance fair, she rejoiced as she smelled an essential oil labeled "Dirt." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Barb lingered a long time at the incense tent and especially enjoyed inhaling a stick called "Gardenia." It reminded her of the bush that bloomed outside her mother's house on Treasure Island.
Barb lingered a long time at the incense tent and especially enjoyed inhaling a stick called "Gardenia." It reminded her of the bush that bloomed outside her mother's house on Treasure Island. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

As she climbed into the RV where they were staying, she winced. It smelled like a refrigerator that had been left unplugged. Maybe it’s the truck next to us, Lani suggested.

Barb headed over to ask. The guy ducked into a cooler and pulled out a smoked turkey leg. Barb reeled, clutching her stomach.

She spent all night nauseous. “Guess I finally smelled bird,” she told Lani. “Now I can’t eat it.”

That rotten leg was a sign. Validation, at last.

If she had only been imagining odors — how could it make her sick?

• • •

When Barb went on “smellventures,” she usually went alone.

Countryside Mall was her mecca. One May afternoon, she strolled into Dillard’s, straight to the perfume counters. She couldn’t tell Chanel No. 5 from Miss Dior. But when she sprayed Marc Jacobs’ Daisy on her wrist, it smelled fresh, different from the others.

At Bath & Body Works, she thought she detected pear soap. “But maybe the green gingham packaging triggered a memory?”

Cinnabon was closed for a break, but she swore she could smell it from four stores away.

For decades, Barb had avoided Yankee Candle shops. But her paranoia had turned to possibility. More confident that she could smell smoke, she had started filling her home with candles.

She bent over each table, sampling limoncello, sage, bronzed sunset. “When I come into a place like this, I don’t have to be self-conscious about smelling everything,” she told the clerk. She couldn’t help but share her story.

Barb's husband did most of the cooking. But since she started thinking she could smell, Barb has spent more time in the kitchen, immersing herself in all sorts of scents. When she got a whiff of cinnamon, she stuck her whole face into the bag of sticks.
Barb's husband did most of the cooking. But since she started thinking she could smell, Barb has spent more time in the kitchen, immersing herself in all sorts of scents. When she got a whiff of cinnamon, she stuck her whole face into the bag of sticks. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

She was feeling more alive lately, more connected to the world. She wasn’t as worried about keeping away from crowds. She had started hugging again.

But two years after she first thought she smelled lemon, she still worried: What if she just wanted to so badly she had convinced herself she could?

• • •

The light in the examination room was bright, the air cool. The only sound was a mechanical hum.

Barb had brought a list to show the researchers at her latest UF appointment, everything she thought she could smell: pot roast, roses, lasagna. So far, insurance had covered nearly all of her visits.

“I just hope I can get a better sense of where I’m at,” she told them that August afternoon.

“Are you still doing the saline nasal rinse?” Justice asked.

“Yes I am,” Barb replied. “I detected 76 smells so far. I even got rain!”

“What about coffee?” Justice wanted to know.

“No coffee. No gasoline,” Barb told him.

The doctors looked at each other. “Fascinating,” Justice said. “What are you getting?”

Wet rag. Maple syrup. Dog poop. Myself. “I don’t know what I’m going through.”

Steven Munger is director of the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste. He met with Barb twice. In August, he tested her ability to discern individual odors.
Steven Munger is director of the University of Florida's Center for Smell and Taste. He met with Barb twice. In August, he tested her ability to discern individual odors. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Justice consulted an MRI he had taken the year before. He showed Barb the white scarring at the base of her brain, the olfactory nerve small and damaged. When that nerve is compromised, he explained, the brain can’t get smell signals. Even if the nerve begins to regrow, scarring might block the pathways.

Barb nodded. That’s why she had never even hoped. But now …

If Barb really was beginning to regain her sense of smell after decades, Munger said, that would be “highly unusual.” But, he said, the brain is an amazing organ.

“To what do you attribute the improvement?” Justice asked. Smell training? Steroid rinse? “Do you think it’s just luck?”

“Well, that’s really my question to you,” Barb said. “I don’t know if it’s the medical marijuana?”

Munger nodded slightly. “Now that there’s awareness and attention about medical marijuana, you’re going to hear anecdotal studies about alternative treatments for all kinds of conditions,” he said. “Different things will work for different people, but it’s not yet established for disorders like smell. It’s going to be a bit like throwing darts at the dartboard.”

“We know neurons can regrow,” Justice said. “But I’m not aware of anyone trying to regenerate nerve cells with medical marijuana.”

Jeb Justice, an otolaryngologist and co-director of the UF Health Smell Disorders Program, evaluated Barb Walker with a nasal endoscope in August. He was trying to determine if anything was blocking her sinuses.
Jeb Justice, an otolaryngologist and co-director of the UF Health Smell Disorders Program, evaluated Barb Walker with a nasal endoscope in August. He was trying to determine if anything was blocking her sinuses. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

It was hard to tell what was helping. Barb was sleeping more, eating better, taking zinc gummies, staying mindful.

When Munger rolled out a machine called the olfactometer, Barb beamed. It was attached to a laptop, with a brace to hold a patient’s forehead while scents burst onto their face.

Barb leaned in, took a deep breath.

“You’ll see four pictures on the screen,” Munger said. “You’ll have 30 seconds to choose.” A green light meant a scent had been released.

Rubber. Soap. Black pepper. Dog.

Barb kept inhaling, squinting, waiting until the last second to push the button.

Skunk. Apple. Rose.

Lemon.

“I don’t know if I got any of those right,” Barb said.

Barb was excited to get to take a test on an olfactometer. Finally, she hoped, she would have scientific proof whether she could really smell. The machine puffed vapors of scents onto her face, and she had to pick which one of four pictures she was smelling.
Barb was excited to get to take a test on an olfactometer. Finally, she hoped, she would have scientific proof whether she could really smell. The machine puffed vapors of scents onto her face, and she had to pick which one of four pictures she was smelling. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A second test measured how much scent she needed to detect something. “You’ll get two puffs, and have to determine which is stronger,” Munger said. “Some of these will be really subtle. Some will be extreme.”

After 30 rounds, she was dizzy. “It was all guessing,” she said, “except lemon.” She clutched the chair, waiting for her scores.

“On odor ID, you got 5 out of 12,” Munger told her. “That’s better than last time. And more than we’d expect by chance. …

“But far from perfect. You got lemon wrong.”

Barb giggled, embarrassed.

“And the threshold test shows you have some small amount of ability to smell,” Munger said. “In the 10% range.”

Barb gasped. “It’s not just my imagination,” she said, caught between crying and laughing. “I knew I could smell something. I’m not crazy.”

And maybe, since she really had gotten some of her ability back, she could get more. Maybe, Munger suggested, she had retained a weak sense of smell since the accident, but her recent fixation had brought it to the forefront.

What if she did the rinse three times a day? Doubled down on the training? Meditated more often?

Keep trying, Justice said. ”Come see us in a year.”

On the drive home, Barb imagined getting back to normal. No, better than before. She is so grateful for what little sense has returned. But now that she has some, she wants it all: More memories. A deeper connection to others and herself.

She pays more attention to the world around her now, so maybe it’s possible.

There are so many things she still wants to smell: Coffee. Motor oil and popcorn. A baby, even if it isn’t hers.

And Christmas.

This year, for the first time, she is going to buy a real tree.