SI Vault
 
MY BRAIN ON GOLF
JEFF KLAUK
March 05, 2012
After a long climb, I finally realized my dream of making a living on the PGA Tour. Now seizures have threatened my career, but I'm hoping the neurosurgery I plan to have this spring will allow me to get back on the course
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 05, 2012

My Brain On Golf

After a long climb, I finally realized my dream of making a living on the PGA Tour. Now seizures have threatened my career, but I'm hoping the neurosurgery I plan to have this spring will allow me to get back on the course

View CoverRead All Articles

On Dec. 24, 2010, I was driving to Saint Francis in the Field church in Ponte Vedra, Fla., with my wife, Shanna, and our two kids when I spaced out for about 30 seconds and gave a weird little chuckle. Most people wouldn't have even noticed this episode, but for me it was another step in a painful march that has led from the heights of pro golf to the brink of brain surgery.

Four years earlier Shanna had been next to me in bed when I had my first seizure—a grand mal. I was in my fifth year on the Nationwide tour and, after what seemed like ages, finally playing good golf. We were at the 2006 Knoxville Open and I went to bed on the leader board and woke up on a hospital bed, feeling as if I had barely survived a triathlon or a championship fight, maybe both.

In a grand mal the muscles suddenly tense—sometimes so forcefully that people moan or scream as the air is shot from their lungs—then contract and expand quickly and repeatedly, causing convulsions. These convulsions can be violent, and mine were. It was two weeks before I felt like myself again, with no memory loss, no sore jaw, no aching muscles.

Two months later I awoke in a hospital in Scranton, Pa., after another grand mal. Though my illness wasn't diagnosed as such at the time, I was one of the almost three million Americans with epilepsy—a neurological disorder resulting from surges of electrical signals inside the brain.

These episodes were shocking, both physically and emotionally. We had no family history of seizures and I had shown no previous signs of a problem. My doctors put me on Trileptal, which kept the seizures at bay for four years. During that time I continued to play well, finishing third on the Nationwide money list in 2008 to earn my PGA Tour card and turning in a rookie season that included three top 10 finishes and more than $1.2 million in earnings.

At the start of my second season I was returning home on a red-eye from the 2010 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. I forgot to take my medicine and was struck by another grand mal. I wound up back in the hospital, where doctors diagnosed nocturnal seizures because all of my grand mals happened while I was sleeping. (I've since learned that fatigue is the catalyst for my seizures. For others, they can be triggered by stress, anxiety or other factors.) I haven't had a grand mal since.

That's not unusual. Grand mal seizures are much easier to control than complex partial seizures, which is what I had that day on my way to church. That was my first, but far from my last. I don't even feel these smaller seizures coming or going. One can last between 30 seconds and two minutes, and I'm fine right after it's over. I usually don't even know that it has happened.

About a month after that first complex partial seizure, I went to my doctor, who set up an EMU (Epilepsy Monitoring Unit) test at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. In the fall I had another EMU at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. I wouldn't wish an EMU on my worst enemy. To try to pinpoint the exact location in the brain where the problem lies, 26 electrodes were attached to the top of my head, and then I was deprived of sleep to try to induce seizures. I could only sleep from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., and if I dozed off at any other time someone immediately awakened me. I watched movies, had a few friends come by, and climbed the walls. I spent three days like that in Jacksonville and seven days at Emory, where I had one complex partial and three grand mal seizures.

The complex partial seizures required a different anticonvulsion medication, Lamictal. I went back to the Tour and was playing O.K. for a while, then not so much. I struggled through eight starts in 2011, finishing in the money twice. Even worse, the complex partial seizures kept popping up. Then my shoulder started to hurt; I had a torn rotator cuff.

In a way I was lucky. I had played well enough in 2008 and '09 to put myself on solid financial ground for the first time in my career. That, plus the PGA Tour's disability policies, kept me out of the very difficult position so many other Americans find themselves in when major medical problems arise. The enforced, season-ending layoff from my second career shoulder surgery allowed me to focus on resolving the seizure issue once and for all.

Continue Story
1 2