Traumatic brain injury survivor Kathleen Klawitter takes ‘one tiny, impossible step at a time’
Believe in yourself more than anything in the world.
This piece of advice, Kathleen Klawitter lives by.
If she didn’t, she’s not sure she would be here today.
The Santa Barbara local talked about her life when she sat down with the News-Press at the picturesque A.C. Postel Memorial Rose Garden in front of the Santa Barbara Mission. On this sunny afternoon, the traumatic brain injury survivor talked about the importance of being positive.
“If I believed everything that every doctor ever told me, I believe I would be dead three times over,” said Ms. Klawitter, who shares her story in her 2020 book “Direct Hit.” “In fact, I would be wearing a colostomy bag right now if I believed that, because that was a prognosis for me back when I was in my 20s.”
The Indiana native moved to Northern California to become a golf professional in the late 1980s and only took a year to gain her Ladies Professional Golf Association card to play, compete and teach.
Instead of just teaching lessons and holding clinics, she created a ladies’ golf league for beginners (which didn’t keep score) and coached a women’s college golf team that remains undefeated.
Ms. Klawitter taught a holistic approach to golf, incorporating the body, mind and spirit into the sport, and she went on to write dozens of articles about the method.
“I mean, I was a bubbly, independent, dynamic woman,” Ms. Klawitter said.
However, her life was dramatically altered on the afternoon of July 28, 1998, when she was walking from the parking lot to the golf clubhouse in Northern California. Suddenly, a speeding golf ball hit from the ninth tee struck her right in the temple.
“It felt like a large stake had driven through the top of my skull and out my left eye socket,” Ms. Klawitter said. “The pain was so excruciating that it felt like a bowling ball had fallen on my head.”
Ms. Klawitter collapsed and was rushed to the emergency room.
After a few months of grueling neurological testing, she found out she suffered a traumatic brain injury from the direct hit. She was told she would have to relearn to speak, read and write.
“The irony of that,” the former golf professional said. “That’s my profession, and this ball has the audacity to come down on the top of my head and end my life as I knew it.”
There was a long road ahead for Ms. Klawitter.
With her frontal, temporal, parietal, occipital lobes and cerebellum injured, she worked with a neuropsychologist and speech, cognitive, physical, occupational and vision therapists. “You name it, I had it,” she said.
The traumatic brain injury gave her double vision and impaired her executive functioning, organizational skills, tracking and sequencing, personality, language, memory understanding, sense of touch, visual and spatial perception of sizes and shapes, balance and coordination.
“I was in this dark hole,” Ms. Klawitter said. “I really viewed life through this dark tunnel with a pressure-type headache … Because when you have a head injury, you feel so isolated. You really get lost in the darkness.”
It took her almost a decade of recovery to be able to return to her first working job since the accident, which she remembers was a position as a flower arranger in Northern California. She even remembers that first paycheck she got since — $59.68.
The Jodi House Brain Injury Support Center in Santa Barbara walked Ms. Klawitter through her recovery, which she said began at a “turtle’s pace.”
But the neurological treatment worked on the left side of her brain, and the right side wasn’t injured.
Because of this, she said she began to hear music — specifically, her dad’s polka music, reminiscent of her Polish heritage: growing up listening to Polka music and dancing to the accordion.
“I would turn my backpack around, and I would pretend that I was playing the accordion,” she said with a giggle. “It gave me hope and it was familiar. And it was so comforting.”
This was where the tide turned for Ms. Klawitter, and the hope she felt from hearing the polka music drove her to continue hearing more music.
That helped her to heal.
Her main neurologist recommended that she do activities of high interest to expel her energy, so Ms. Klawitter began sketching, first in black and white and then in color.
She started observing the night sky and learned the constellations. She earned a black belt and became a certified archery instructor. She took a pottery class, and she thought it went so well that she went back to Santa Barbara City College for her master’s degree in psychology.
Ms. Klawitter enrolled in an eight-week course from a writing professor at City College — three times over.
“As a head-injured person, you really have to overlearn something to actually learn it. Repetition of something will help,” she said.
In the class, she said her professor challenged her to write about her accident and read it aloud to the students. When Ms. Klawitter tried, she said she “maybe got through the first paragraph” until she began to cry, so the professor read the remainder to the class.
That excerpt became the prologue to Ms. Klawitter’s book — “Direct Hit” (2020, KK Speaks LLC, $21.95). It’s available at Chaucer’s Books on upper State Street and Amazon.com.
Ms. Klawitter finished the book despite her father’s death a couple years ago because, she said, she heard his voice in the same way she heard his polka music, saying, “Take a leap of faith.”
Now, more than two decades after the accident, Ms. Klawitter remains a force of creativity and intelligence. But she said she accesses information differently.
Her pace is slower, her day is structured and she can only do one to two things each day.
Auditory, visual and environmental stimulation can become distracting to her in public places and lead to the pseudobulbar affect, which is characterized by episodes of sudden, uncontrollable and inappropriate laughing or crying, according to the Mayo Clinic’s definition.
Ms. Klawitter literally had to teach herself how to smile again.
“That was another thing that I had to work on early on, to make sure that I could smile again, to get that brain to fire,” the author said. “I had to practice curling up my lips on the ends and look in the mirror and be like, ‘There it is.’”
Although every day consists of practice for Ms. Klawitter, she used grounding and meditation practices to rebuild her life. She learned to forgive the gentleman who hit the golf ball, who she mentioned had been drinking alcohol.
“When you forgive someone, it’s not that you’re saying, ‘It’s OK that you did this wrong thing,’ but it’s so that you can not have resentment or any other emotional barrier around it, and so that you can once again live life the way you want to,” Ms. Klawitter said.
The former golfer added that she meditated and actually had a vision of the golf ball that hit her. She learned to forgive the physical object too.
“Then when I went out and tried to go play golf again, I wasn’t triggered by the golf ball. I wasn’t afraid to be out in the original sacred space of grass and trees and the fresh air and the sun or the rain.”
Now Ms. Klawitter is a published author, resilience coach and motivational speaker, because she knew she still wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. While it didn’t seem likely she’d wear all those hats at her prognosis following the direct hit, Ms. Klawitter said all it took was “one, tiny, impossible step at a time” to get there.
Ms. Klawitter coined something she called a “high-five system” when she was a golf instructor, but decided that it held true for anything in life, including overcoming a traumatic brain injury.
Her five tidbits in the system advise people to: establish a daily routine, stay in the present moment, stay focused on exactly what you desire, believe in yourself more than anything in the world and give yourself some good old tender loving care.
And she defines TLC as self-trust, self-love and self-care.
When asked about who she was before her injury and who she is now, Ms. Klawitter said she struggles to see the befores and afters of her brain injury. However, she emphasized that her “positivity bias on life” was present both before and after, and got her to where she is today.
“I believed that if you looked at more of the silver lining or the blessing in life, that you would move through life a little bit easier. And it’s not to say to be superficial and disregard your emotions. It’s incredibly important to lean into those emotions, whether you’re sad or angry or confused or still in disbelief about what’s happened. You really want to express those in a safe way,” Ms. Klawitter said.
“But then, to shift after that and be like, ‘OK, this is what’s happening now. This is what I’m doing now.’ (That) became my mantra … And before long, if you keep that positive outlook, being in that positive frame of reference brings you back out of the darkness quicker …
“You’re honoring all the feelings that you have and then honoring our natural state, (which) I believe, is that we really are all just joyous people. We love to love. We love to be happy.
“We love to feel a sense of belonging and gather and sing and dance and feast. We really do.”