Accident leaves basketball player with no memory

Accident leaves basketball player with no memory
Walla Walla Community College basketball player Kayla Hutcheson stands in front of her coach, Bobbi Hazeltine and the rest of the basketball team on Dec. 11, 2008 in Walla Walla, Wash.
WALLA WALLA, Wash. (AP) - At 18 years old, Kayla Hutcheson is looking forward to her first Christmas in memory.

The more the Walla Walla Community College freshman learns about the traditions, decorations and general holiday hoopla, the more Christmas sounds like something she'll like.

The fact that Hutcheson lived through 17 Christmas seasons doesn't really register, she said, leaning forward on a couch in her basketball coach's office, her long fingers locked in loose embrace.

For now, those years are lost for her.

It's almost exactly like a Hollywood movie, what's happened to Hutcheson.

On this day, to look at her, a bystander would never know what the young woman has undergone since late October. The college athlete runs, as fast or faster than her teammates. She shoots, long and sure. She sprints, lunging from line to line with concentration etched in the trails of sweat running down her face.

It was a regular basketball practice like this one, remembered Walla Walla Community College women's basketball coach Bobbi Hazeltine.

On Oct. 26, Hutcheson and another girl were "pressing," running full-court defenses, the coach explained. "She and another girl were running full speed toward another girl who had the ball ... both were just looking at the ball."

And - snap - the two runners met head-on, face to face in the most literal sense.

Blood began flowing immediately; Hutcheson had fractured her nose.

Nothing unusual, requiring no more than a water break and sidelining the girls for a bit.

"Everyone gets bloody noses, we deal with them. She told us she was fine," the coach recalled.

The call that came later said otherwise.

After her roommates took Hutcheson home, they saw signs of trouble.

"She said her arms were numb," Nancy Johnson said of Hutcheson. "I started rubbing them out, icing her face for the broken nose, treating her for shock."

The four roommates, all age 18, share a downtown apartment, as well as a love for sports. Three come from Idaho, one from Washington.

At the end of October the living situation still felt new; relationships were being worked out. There had been some tense moments here and there, the women agreed.

As a unit, however, the three healthy roommates quickly reached the decision to take Hutcheson to the emergency room after noting some alarming behaviors.

For starters, she didn't know their names, said roommate Jaimie Berghammer. Too, Hutcheson was dizzy and had a horrific headache.

After a CT scan, an ER doctor determined Hutcheson had endured a third-degree concussion. As is common, her symptoms would dissipate, he predicted.

He couldn't know Hutcheson has enjoyed only a nodding acquaintance with "common" and this incident would prove no different.

Since she was tiny, the Kimberly, Idaho, girl has been a real jock, her dad said. "She's very athletic. At 5 or 6, as soon as she could, she started playing T-ball. I coached her team."

Young Kayla also excelled in soccer and basketball, her enthusiasm for sports equaled by her magnetic, outgoing nature that attracted friends, Bart Hutcheson said.

It was that combination and more that Hazeltine was drawn to as she was recruiting for her 2008-2009 team. Not only is Hutcheson a gifted athlete, she's an above-average student and an "exceptional person," the coach said. "I like to find good people ... she's a team player. Those things are really important to me."

Knowing her recruit as such a capable young woman made it difficult for Hazeltine to grasp what she was hearing soon after Hutcheson's accident.

Although the girl's roommates warned her Hutcheson was changed, Hazeltine was confident this was another regular concussion, like others she's seen over the years.

At the apartment, however, the situation immediately became more clear, she said. "She didn't know me, even though her roommates had told her I was coming. I started asking her questions and she didn't know anything. She couldn't read, she barely talked."

When Hazeltine got Hutcheson out of bed, the young woman couldn't walk without holding on to something.

When Hutcheson spoke, it was in the voice and diction of a little child.

Things got worse. "I took her to her room and showed her pictures on her wall and she didn't know anyone," Hazeltine said, still incredulous six weeks later. "I asked her parents' names, her siblings ... she shrugged at every question I asked."

Hazeltine was unprepared for this level of trauma, she said. "I was sick to my stomach. I couldn't believe this had happened."

The ER providers assured the coach nothing had shown up on a brain scan and that this was how a severe concussion looked.

But Hazeltine doesn't limit her job to the gym floor and this would be no exception. "When I recruit these kids, I make a promise to their parents to take care of them, but you never think it's going to be this.

"Every year I get 15 new children. Kayla is like a daughter. Every day when I wake up, my first thought is How's Kayla?"

Although Kayla's parents, Bart and Patty Hutcheson, stayed in constant phone contact, everyone assumed Kayla would return to normal any moment.

It started becoming apparent that wasn't to be the case, even after another brain scan still showed no internal bleeding. When it took Hutcheson 30 seconds to identify a pencil, and another chunk of time to remember what it was used for, Hazeltine grew increasingly worried.

As for Hutcheson's roommates, they were equally nervous about their roomie. Overnight, the living arrangement had changed and Johnson, Berghammer and Jill Haney found themselves in the role of parents.

They took turns skipping class to stay with Hutcheson, quizzing her on the facts of her life, like her birth date and what she likes to eat.

"It was kind of like having a big, huge baby," Johnson said. "The first couple of weeks were really overwhelming. She didn't know what fire was, what a toaster was."

Hutcheson wanted only noodles and cookies for sustenance.

"She didn't know what anything was. She was afraid to try stuff," Johnson said.

The roommates discovered Hutcheson would do almost anything for cookies. At the point she could use walls to balance herself, she would sneak into the kitchen like a preschooler to get the treat.

"We gave her cookies to get her to smile," Johnson recounted. "Because we knew someone was in there."

When Hutcheson attended a team practice after a few days, she was reintroduced to her teammates. She could only sit comfortably in a chaise lounge lawn chair and she held a basketball like it was a foreign object, Hazeltine said. "She didn't know anything we were doing. If she 'sort of' understood something, she would give me a thumbs up."

Hutcheson couldn't attend classes at first, couldn't name her pets, couldn't remember how to eat a banana.

"She was like a zombie," Hazeltine explained.

Nonetheless, when Bart and Patty Hutcheson came to take Kayla home to Idaho, they found a network of support so tightly woven around their daughter that to remove her would have been detrimental, they believed.

Not only were Kayla's teachers invested in keeping her learning - they passed her from class to class and offered assignment options - but she was getting stimulation that would be lacking at home, Bart said from Idaho. "We both work all day. Here, she would sit on the couch, do nothing but watch TV."

It wasn't an easy decision. "It went against every parental instinct, but we tried not to show her ... but to leave her there, we had to fight down that urge to bring her home."

What's happened to his child is "flat-out weird," Bart added. "It knocked 15 years out of her life. Everything you hear about concussion, they talk about short-term memory loss. You hear nothing about long-term memory loss."

True enough, said Hutcheson's primary-care provider, Dr. Robert Carmody of Walla Walla Clinic. This kind of concussion aftermath just doesn't happen this way outside of the movies, he said.

"Usually memory loss is of right before and right after the accident. You don't see complex memory loss, except very rarely."

Lucky for this patient, Carmody had seen such rarity, but only twice in 30 years of practice he said.

While Hutcheson's collision didn't produce visible bleeding, "it obviously shook something up. It just tells you the brain is electrical and chemical and more complex than any computer we could ever devise."

Carmody didn't panic. He knew more testing was unlikely to offer answers, but could mean unnecessary expense and worry for the Hutchesons, he said.

"I was comfortable with everyone and doing it myself. I felt we could manage it locally with the great support of the school and the people around Kayla. Reassurance is a big part of this."

He's not anticipating any long-term effects for the college freshman, who has enjoyed good health her whole life, Carmody said. "I hope by January you won't be able to tell anything happened."

Maybe. A trip home for Thanksgiving was widely anticipated to act as a catharsis for Hutcheson's amnesia. Instead, she ended up hanging out with childhood friends and a brother she didn't remember, although "everyone was really nice," Hutcheson said.

Even home videos and pictures did little to help the situation. It was hard to watch friends she no longer knew fall apart in a jangle of emotion, the young woman said. "I was freaking out because I didn't know what to do."

"She called me," Hazeltine said. "She said, Wow, my town is so little, I cannot believe I grew up here."'

Somehow, Hutcheson regained one memory of a family trip to a Six Flags amusement park. But no avalanche of recovered data followed, the coach said, adding people often get impatient, thinking they will be the one to unlock Hutcheson's memories.

"They start talking to me and don't realize I don't know what they are talking about," Hutcheson explained.

Yet there have been signs of recovery. Hutcheson has been released to participate in most of the basketball practice drills. She's writing and reading again.

"She's amazing," Hazeltine said. "Kayla's the fastest on our team, the highest jumper, she has relearned all the rules. All her motor skills are coming back but she can't remember the last 18 years."

There's some humor to be found, though. Hutcheson retaught herself to text message on her cell phone, much to Carmody's delight - texting takes higher brain activity, he said.

At first, her spelling was atrocious, Hazeltine noted. "She would text me, writing 'koach.' Then, one day, all her spelling was perfect and I was sure everything had come back."

She'd relearned the "T9," or automatic spelling function, Hutcheson explained with a grin.

Some days are still exhausting; head pain still dogs her. "Other days I'm excited I get to do more things," the athlete said. Her favorite retreat is the school gym. "It helps me remember more."

Christmas is coming, when the young woman will again get to know relatives on a family trip to Colorado. Thanks to the tutoring of those around her, Hutcheson knows what the holiday typically holds, and there's one gift she'd love to get.

"I'd like my memory back for Christmas," she said.

Hutcheson's ordeal will have lifelong impact on many.

Johnson, Haney and Berghammer left the self-absorbed world of young adults behind to take care of Hutcheson. That included taking notes in class for her, making one lunch for themselves and an extra one for Hutcheson, in addition to doing her laundry.

"Our communication skills really improved," Johnson said. "We had to coordinate Kayla care."

Those are important life skills, she added. "I learned sometimes you have to do things without recognition."

Like when she had to get Hutcheson up and moving, to walk off all those cookies and stay in game shape "She was mad at me. But later she'll thank me for being a jerk."

The experience has led to deep conversation among the young women.

"After Kayla got hit and her humanism' came back, before she could remember us, she immediately had her unique personality," Johnson said, sitting cross-legged on a couch in the apartment.

It might be described as a person's soul, she ruminated. But perhaps more of a person's nucleus. "Even if you're wiped clean and start over, is there something that is partly physical, partly spiritual, part emotion? It would be the core of a person, I guess."

She saw that in Hutcheson in the first hours after the crash, Johnson said. "The one cool thing, when we were asking her questions and showing her pictures, I showed her a picture of Jesus.

"She knew his name."