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Helping Kayla Remember

Jan. 19, 2009
Jan. 19, 2009

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Jan. 19, 2009

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Helping Kayla Remember

At first, KaylaHutcheson figured she'd just busted up her nose. No big deal, right? After allKayla, a freshman power forward at Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College, hadspent much of her life playing through sprained ankles and stitched-up chins.This is a girl who played football through the eighth grade. As a tight end.Against boys. A little blood didn't scare her.

This is an article from the Jan. 19, 2009 issue

So when shebanged face-first into teammate Jeni Gabriel on a full-court press drill duringpractice in October, she tried to walk it off. Even persuaded her coach, BobbiHazeltine, to let her run sprints with the rest of the team at the end ofpractice. "Her fastest time of the year too," says Hazeltine, whoclocks such things. (There's a reason Walla Walla was 9-2 at week's end.)

But that night,when Kayla got back to the apartment she shares with three teammates, shestarted feeling all kinds of wrong. Not only did her nose throb--turns outshe'd fractured it--but her arms also started to go numb. Then she becamedisoriented, her mind fogging up like an '86 Civic on a cold, rainy day.

Kayla's roommatesrushed her to the hospital, where she was given a CT scan and an MRI. Grade 3concussion with a little short-term memory loss, a doctor said. Take her homeand let her rest.

The thing aboutconcussions is, doctors can't immediately predict their long-term effects. Whenfootball players get them there's a fun, familiar phrase--"getting yourbell rung"--though there's nothing fun about the amnesia and dementia thatmay result.

In Kayla's case,she couldn't remember anything from before the accident. Her dad, Bart, drovein from Kimberly, Idaho. He showed her home movies. He knelt and stared in hereyes. Nothing. "I had to walk into that apartment and introduce myself tomy own daughter," Bart says.

But instead oftaking Kayla back with him, Bart decided to leave her in Walla Walla. At homeshe'd just sit in front of the TV while he and her stepmother were at work.(Kayla's mom and Bart divorced when she was five.) At school she had a familyaround her all the time. "At that point those girls and her coach were theonly people she knew," he says. "I didn't want to take her away fromthem."

Teams are oftenreferred to as families, and Kayla's roommates--fellow freshmen JaimieBerghammer, Jill Haney and Nancy Johnson--did as much as any sisters could.They took turns watching over her, walking her to class and helping her withher schoolwork. "It was like taking care of a kid," says Haney. Indeed,for a few weeks Kayla spoke and acted like a toddler. She had no idea what abanana was; a toaster flummoxed her. Cookies, though, she loved. "We had tohide them all because she wouldn't eat anything else," Johnson says.

As Kaylarelearned life, she relearned basketball. You might not think that's apriority, but it's the one thing she quickly responded to. At practices she satin a lawn chair, giving Hazeltine a thumbs-up whenever she understoodsomething. She didn't recall the rules of the game, but when Hazeltine firsthanded a ball to her and told her to shoot, she raised it above her head--Kaylaalways had a funky shooting motion--and swished the shot. "It was like thatwas one part of her brain that still worked," says the coach.

As the weekspassed, Kayla's easygoing personality returned ("identical to before,"says Haney) as well as her facility with language and physical skills. In earlyDecember she was cleared to return to noncontact practice, and she spent hoursrelearning the Warriors' six offenses and 28 set plays. Still, Kayla could onlyrecall snippets of her life. A family trip to Six Flags. Listening to a dancesong in the car. She went home for the holidays, but even "meeting"relatives didn't trigger her memory.

It hasn't gottenmuch better since. Kayla's frustrated and hasn't had a good night's sleep inmonths. Sometimes she cries. Other times she dreads going out, lest she meetanother friend who is a stranger. "I feel like my life's like apuzzle," she says, "and I have to put it together."

If that's so, shefilled in one of the biggest pieces last week. Her doctor, Robert Carmody,cleared her to play, deeming it "therapeutic." Her dad gave thego-ahead too, figuring the benefits outweighed the potential risks. So onJan. 7, Kayla suited up for her first college basketball game. Sure, shewas nervous, and "a little scared." She blew an early layup, almostpanicked when an elbow glanced her nose. But she ended up scoring 14 points in13 minutes, even helping out once on the press.

After the buzzer,accepting her teammates' hugs, I saw on her face a true smile for the firsttime all day. The game had come back to her. As for the rest of her life, Kaylais still waiting.±

Grade 3 concussion with a little short-term memoryloss, a doctor said. But she couldn't recall anything or anyone. Her dad staredinto her eyes. Nothing.

TALK BACK If you have a comment about the effects ofconcussions, send it to SI.com/pointafter.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER