NC teen’s brain stuck on repeat for past 16 months

Posted at 8:55 PM, Feb 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-28 20:55:46-05

GREENSBORO, N.C. - A North Carolina high school student is living a real-life "50 First Dates" after she suffered a sports injury in 2017 that left her with anterograde amnesia, a rare condition that causes her brain to "reset" every night while she sleeps and without any memories from the prior day.

Caitlin Little was part of Southeast Guilford High School’s cross country program, and it was during practice that her life changed forever.

“Thursday, 5 p.m., Oct. 12, 2017,” her mother, Jennifer, told WGHP. “Pretty easy to remember.”

That was the day at practice when someone stumbled and hit Caitlin in the head, leaving her with a concussion that lasted far longer than anyone – even the doctors who examined her – thought it would.

“(The neurologist) called what he recommended, ‘cocooning,’” her father Chris said. “Cocoon her, protect her from anything very stimulating that might induce more headaches. He said, 'Well, okay, this looks pretty bad. But, in my experience,' he said, '90 percent of these resolve themselves in three weeks.'”

“That was the magic number, three weeks,” Jennifer said. “We just need to make it to three weeks.”

But three weeks passed. She wasn’t getting better. And 16 months after the incident, Caitlin can remember most of what happens on any given day, but her brain resets overnight and, each morning, she wakes up with no memory of the day before.

Yes, like the movie, “50 First Dates.” Only, a happy ending could be written for the movie. For Caitlin and her family, this is real life.

For the last nearly 500 days, her father has awakened her each morning and told her what day it is and what happened all those months ago that robbed her of her memory. Because of her condition, Caitlin wakes up each morning thinking it’s Oct. 13, 2017, the day after the accident.

“Hey, sweetheart,” says her dad, Chris, softly, each morning. And then he has to break the news, “You got hit on the head during cross-country practice and you’ve been out of things for a while.”

It's an odd thing for anyone to hear.

“I'm always afraid that she's going to jump out of bed and tell me it's wrong and it can't be, and why am I lying to her? So, I'm always very hesitant every day when I do it. But it's my job. I have to tell her,” dad Chris said. When asked if Caitlin has ever pushed back, he said, “The most that she's ever done is act very, very surprised. Or say something like, 'How can that be?' And when she does that, I explained to her that she has a journal. It's on her desk. She has Post-It notes, read those and if she has any questions, come and see me in 15, 20 minutes.”

And when asked if it's heartbreaking every morning?

“Every time.”

“I get plagued by confusion most often, wanting to know, ‘Well, how did that happen?’” Caitlin said. But she finds a way to understand and move on.

October 13 on repeat

“When she first got hurt, we were OK with it because everybody was like, 'Oh, yeah, two weeks, you're good,'” her mother, told WGHP. “And then I was told three weeks is that critical moment; if she's not better in three weeks, you're in for the long haul. And three weeks passed, and we weren't better.”

Caitlin did get better over the first six months, but she hasn't progressed since April 2018, forced to develop ways to cope in a world that changes while her memory can’t add new information.

“[I have to be] very organized,” Caitlin said. "So I have lots of Post-It notes that say, ‘Hey, let's do this,’ or, ‘This is new,’ or things to help me out. So, it's not as hard as I'd imagine it'd be without them."

The accident

There are few things so universal as a parent wanting a good education for their child. And into her freshman year, Chris and Jennifer Little had their second child, Caitlin, right on track.

It’s safe to say Caitlin Little was a precocious little girl.

“Caitlin started walking at 7 months old, running at 8 months old. So, Caitlin doesn't sit around waiting for anything,” Jennifer Little said.

“She was breezing by in class, she would always participate in class, her assignments were on point," Kenya Jenkins, one of her teachers, told FOX8. “Caitlin, she was so phenomenal before the accident.”

But then, the accident derailed the Littles' plans. Witnesses say some kids were goofing around at that practice on October 12, 2017. One kid got shoved and hit Caitlin in the temple, giving her a life-changing concussion.

After trying to rest for three weeks or so, her parents thought trying to regain her routine might help, so, on the advice of doctors, Caitlin returned to classes. But, from the beginning, her parents understood it might be futile.

“Everything she's doing in school, she's going through the motions of school, and that's great. She wants to do it. She wants to perform, but the next day, it's a complete reset, a blank slate,” her father Chris said.

“Generally, you thought, ‘Well, okay, we've dealt with these before,’” said Southeast Guilford High School Principal Mark Seagraves.

The school has done everything they can think of to assist Caitlin. All of her teachers plus the administrative staff and others meet regularly and go out of their way to ensure she has the best chance to succeed.

But not everything has gone as hoped.

"Twenty-three years in the business, I'm not sure I've seen anything or experienced anything like this before,” Seagraves said.

Tracy Helms, a special education teacher assistant, is among those assigned to help Caitlin. Her picture is in Caitlin’s main binder, just like all of Caitlin's other teachers and helpers, each with a description of who they are. Helms' description says, simply, “Your buddy.”

Helms helps Caitlin get where she needs to go and do what she has to do. But, even though Caitlin has met Helms every school day this past year and a half, each morning when Caitlin sees her, it’s like she’s seeing her "buddy" for the first time.

WGHP asked Helms what it’s like repeating that every day. “I come in and meet her, and she doesn't know who I am” she says, with heartbreak in her voice. "Every day, she doesn't know where her seat is in this class; she doesn't know who her teacher is. Every day is fresh and new to her, just like it's never been seen before.”

"It will take time to heal"

Her parents have been told – as almost every concussion patient is – that it will take time to heal.

“The sense was, well, if we hit a certain time period, then it will be almost like a light switch and all these memories will be back, she’s going to understand what happened, she’d go back to where she was,” said John Woods, a close friend of the family. “And the longer that went, the further out the projection was of how long it was going to take before that light switch was flipped and it just hasn’t happened.”