WWCC basketball player's memory returns in dreams

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They come in dreams, unanticipated but welcome.

One by one, without pattern and seemingly without cause, Kayla Hutcheson’s memories have been returning to her while she sleeps. When she wakes, the 23-year-old is drenched in a happy mix of deja vu and wonder.

The first job on those mornings is to call home, the Boise State junior said. “My dad will say, ‘Yeah, that happened.’” Then she knows another piece of her past is fitting itself into the larger puzzle created by long-term amnesia.

Yet even as Hutcheson recovers more and more of who she was, she finds herself once again searching for a way to define her own identity.

The young Idaho woman has been down this road before.

It was October 2008 when Hutcheson, playing for the Walla Walla Community College women’s basketball team, ran into a teammate at full tilt during a pressing drill. The two players met face-to-face in a manner that left Hutcheson with a fractured nose.

And worse, it turned out.

What started out looking like a nasty and persistent concussion soon revealed itself to be amnesia that erased about 15 years from his daughter’s life, noted Bart Hutcheson in a 2009 Union-Bulletin story. It was, in his words then, “flat out weird.”

Within hours the college athlete had landed in the emergency room after being unable to name the three girls with whom she shared a downtown apartment. She also was suffering dizziness and a horrific headache. A doctor eventually released her to the care of her roommates to go home to ice, rest and aspirin.

By the time WWCC coach Bobbi Hazeltine got a call later that afternoon, however, Hutcheson didn’t recognize her and couldn’t answer Hazeltine’s questions.

The lifelong athlete spoke and acted like a toddler, and could only shrug at pictures of her family. It took her half a minute to identify a pencil and longer to remember what it was used for.

Day after day, the suspected concussion refused to clear up. Within weeks, it became apparent Hutcheson’s memory was effectively gone, and experts couldn’t predict what might happen next.

Roommates Nancy Johnson, Jaimie Berghammer and Jill Haney found themselves in a situation no one could have foreseen or asked of young adults — to parent another young adult. Or, rather, someone their age who behaved in nearly every way as a tiny girl learning to walk and eat and talk.

The story of what experts called extremely rare amnesia became known to the public in December that year as Hutcheson awaited her first Christmas in her memory. Soon it was all over the country, from newspapers to television broadcasts to Sports Illustrated.

Yet the hard work of raising Hutcheson was out of the limelight.

Within hours of Hutcheson’s accident, Johnson, Haney and Berghammer fell into the roles they would retain for the next several months. The trio of new parents started with the basics, teaching their roomie how to hold onto walls to stay upright, peel a banana and what a toaster was used for. When Hutcheson could return to school, the young women packed her lunches, took class notes and did her laundry. They cooked the noodles she craved and hid the cookies, the secret weapon for motivating Hutcheson out of her zombie-like behavior.

It was amazing to witness, Hazeltine recalled. “It made all of us realize there are things you don’t expect that can happen. Never should 19-year-olds have to deal with that as roommates ... those girls should not have had to take care of a 2-year-old. Kayla losing her memory was bizarre enough.”

It’s interesting to her that with each new basketball season, incoming team members ask about “the Kayla thing,” Hazeltine continued. “And mostly from the roommate viewpoint.”

The second year at the community college proved to have its own set of challenges. Although no trip home, no family videos or visits from high school friends had pried loose the hidden memories, she was ready by that next fall to do more and more on her own, Hutcheson said by phone from school.

At last a pattern of recovery emerged, Berghammer noted. “We figured out (Hutcheson) would get really bad headaches for a week. Then she’d come home from practice and be happy, because she had a memory. She would check in with Jill, they grew up together in high school, and so Jill would complete the story for Kayla.”

Nonetheless, it was hard for her roommates to step back until Hutcheson’s persistent progress convinced them they could go back to being college students instead of parents attending college, she said.

Even so, the women were right to be cautious, it turns out. As a college junior, Hutcheson transferred to school in Oklahoma, where she received her fifth concussion while pursuing her basketball dream.

“It was either keep playing or stop,” Hutcheson said.

She chose her health, she added, but in doing so, is struggling to redefine who Kayla Hutcheson is without a basketball in her hands. Coaching the sport, preferably in a high school in Washington state, will have to fill that hole she said.

Hutcheson says time with her family in Southern Idaho is precious — she calls her dad every day, she said.

Her heavenly father is a bigger presence now, as well. Hutcheson was baptized in December after feeling her growing faith has become part of the recovery from amnesia — she estimates about 50 percent of her memory has returned.

Not having her past fully in place is frustrating, she conceded, “But after so many years I’ve learned to go with the flow. I’m excited when something does come back, like a kid opening presents at Christmas.”

The young woman’s relationship with God has “just skyrocketed,” she said. “I’ve grown so much. I’m a lot stronger, this has shaped me to be there for people like they were there for me. It’s made me appreciate life and everything in it. So much.

“I have come this far and it’s amazing. I credit God with that.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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