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Short-Term Memory Loss Doesn't Keep North Texas Teen From Learning, Singing

Kaitlynn Curtner suffered massive bleeding in her brain when she was 12. Doctors say it was caused by an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM. The Tarrant County girl survived, but the condition affected her short-term memory.

As part of KERA’s American Graduate initiative, we talk to Kaitlynn, who’s now 15, about what life has been like and how she keeps up with school.

Routines are good for Kaitlynn. So are sticky notes, and reminders jotted down on multiple calendars. She sets several alarms on her phone each day and, at night, she and her mom go over everything she has to do the next day. She says the past three years haven’t been easy.

“They’ve been very challenging having to completely change the way that you think and the way that you have to learn,” Kaitlynn says. “It’s very hard and it’s kind of a wake-up call that you need to cherish every moment you have [because] you never know.”

That wake-up call happened Sept. 2, 2011 while Kaitlynn was in school. She wasn’t feeling well and went to the counselor’s office. The principal called her mom to pick her up. But before she could get there, Kaitlynn had a seizure. Paramedics arrived and took her to the hospital.

Kaitlynn’s mom, Wendy Curtner describes what happened in her daughter’s brain.

“It’s arteriovenous malformation,” Curtner says. “The capillaries are supposed to make direct connections between the arteries and the veins and in an AVM, it’s malformed, so it just basically looks like this big nest or cluster of blood vessels. And so there just weren’t the right connections being made, so for whatever reason on that particular day, it just burst.”

Kaitlynn spent six or seven hours in surgery. After a week in the intensive care unit, she was moved to an inpatient rehab center in Dallas where she did different forms of therapy – physical, occupational, neuropsychology, even music therapy – from morning till afternoon.

She regained physical movement pretty quickly, but her short-term memory was pretty much gone. At first she could only retain information for three to five minutes.

This is how Kaitlynn describes it:

“It’s kind of like somebody gives you the information and there’s a chalkboard in your mind and you write down the information and, over the course of an hour or day, bits and parts of that information that you were told gets erased.”

The constant reminders and a daily routine have helped though, as has another coping and learning strategy.

“Definitely music is a big stress reliever for me,” Kaitlynn says. “If I’m frustrated with school, I’ll just kind step away and go pick up my guitar, go play the piano, and just escape for a little while and then come back when I’m ready.”

Kaitlynn has written several song and she sometimes uses music to help her remember some of the material she’s learning like math problems. She’s enrolled in iUniversity Prep, a free online schoolin the Grapevine-Colleyville school district. Kaitlynn and her mom say it’s better suited for her than a traditional public school.

On a recent afternoon, her chemistry teacher welcomed everybody who had signed in online. A window where you can chat with the other students and teacher appears on the screen, so you can communicate in real time.

Kaye Rogers, the school’s director of virtual education, says about 300 students are enrolled in grade fifth through 12th. About one-fourth of the students have a health issue or learning disability that makes it difficult for them to physically be in the classroom every day for eight hours. She says the school will expand to the fourth grade next year and eventually to third grade, which is the lowest grade the state allows for a virtual school.

“Everything we do is recorded, so all [of] the live lessons, tutorials – everything is recorded,” Rogers says. “So she can go back and listen to that recording again.”

And when she’s not busy studying, Kaitlynn will pick up the guitar and sing another one of her own tunes.

You can listen to some of Kaitlynn's songs and find out about upcoming performances on her website.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.