"They talk about the broken heart and how time heals everything. Time is not healing this," says mom Jennifer Little

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Caitlin little
Credit: Maggie Steber

Caitlin Little’s parents spend every waking minute searching and hoping that life will soon go back to what it looked like before Oct. 12, 2017.

It was on that day that Caitlin, now 17, collided head-to-head with one of her cross-country teammates at school, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The frightening symptoms appeared right away. After practice, when Caitlin walked with her mom Jennifer to their car, she just stared at the door.

“She didn’t know how to open it,” says Jennifer, 47, of Greensboro, North Carolina. “It was very concerning.”

As the days went on and Caitlin became even more confused, doctors told Jennifer and her husband Chris, 53, not to worry.

“They said she had a concussion and that it would go away in a few weeks,” she tells PEOPLE, “but it only got worse.”

Every new memory seemed to vanish. “She wouldn’t remember that she’d brushed her teeth or that she’d just eaten,” says Chris.

Diagnosed with anterograde amnesia, an exceptionally rare condition that affects one’s ability to make new memories, Caitlin began to wake up every morning thinking it was the morning of the accident.

The family says one doctor said that Caitlin was “making it up” and just to “drop her off at school.” And another, says Jennifer, “gave a plausible explanation that it would take three to six months to heal.”

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Caitlin Little
Caitlin Little
| Credit: Maggie Steber

As they “sort of cocooned her,” she explains, “we saw her memory last from 10 minutes to 30.” And six months after the accident, she was able to hold her memories for about four to five hours.

Since then the family has sought out specialists around the country, “hoping someone can fix our daughter,” says Jennifer. They’ve already spent their life savings and, while a GoFundMe account has helped, the bills keep mounting.

Caitlin’s future looked promising and the family thought they were on the right path. By the summer of 2018, her memory lasted about 10 hours before it “reset” back to the day of the accident. She went back to school and started to learn how to play the guitar.

“She was clear-minded as long as she was running,” says Jennifer, “and could still do eight miles a day.”

Caitlin, who turned 17 last week, would frantically record everything she did in a journal, so she’d remember it all when she woke up the next day.

“She’d ask us tough questions like, ‘Do I have friends anymore?’ [and] ‘Am I a burden to my family?'” says Jennifer. “It was excruciating to watch her realize that we dealt with this every single day, but a blessing to see her improve and have her memory last longer.”

That blessing was shattered after a regular routine exam during a visit to her pediatrician in September 2018 revealed that Caitlin’s oxygen levels were critically low because there was limited blood going to the right side of her brain.

Caitlin was referred to a cervical chiropractor, who told them a misalignment between her skull and the base of her spine was cutting off blood flow to her brain.

But the adjustment made to her neck ultimately left Caitlin unable to move and in excruciating pain. Procaine injections, prescribed by another doctor, relieved the pain and restored her mobility but made her memory problems worse than before.

“Her memory went [from 10 hours] to 60 seconds right before our eyes,” says Jennifer. “She just disappeared, and it’s been like that ever since.”

Caitlin Little
Jennifer and Chris Little with their daughter Caitlin at home in Greensboro, North Carolina
| Credit: Maggie Steber

The mom adds: “It’s a pain you cannot touch for a parent. They talk about the broken heart and how time heals everything. Time is not healing this.”

Caitlin can still remember everything about her life up to the day of the accident. But after the collision, she can only retain new memories for a minute at a time, before her brain “resets” and she forgets everything that just happened.

The Littles have been told time and time again that there is nothing anyone can do to get the old Caitlin back. Yet her family won’t accept it — and refuse to give up hope.

Doctors in Texas who practice integrative medicine with detoxing and nutrition weren’t able to help. And no one in North Carolina has any concrete answers. Three times a week Caitlin sees therapist Cheryl Dalton, who does structural integration, and has helped with the immense pain Caitlin has throughout her body.

“We’re running out of time and money,” says Chris, “but we will never stop looking for a cure.”

Jennifer and Chris try to stay strong, but seeing Caitlin get older and yet stuck in the past is never easy.

“She doesn’t have friends,” says Chris. “She doesn’t go see anyone. She would furiously scribble notes and write in her diary things that she wanted to remember for that day. There were things that she hoped for for tomorrow, but that’s all gone because with a one-minute memory she’s not stressed out about anything. I’m really torn from that. I am horrified that she doesn’t even recognize how precarious her situation is and I’m also grateful that at least she’s spared that pain.”