At 16, she loses her nails.
The diapers are flaking off, a side effect of his medication. It’s hard for Upper Fountain Valley junior Dakota Lam hold a pencil, let alone a golf club. His fingers pulsate after enough swings, and then blood spurts, gushing from the raw skin beneath his fingernails.
This still scares her father, Nghia. He brings his daughter home after practice to soak her hands in salt water, hands he held as she lay in her hospital bed two years ago, clinging to life after a stroke. The bleeding triggers memories of the mysterious condition that caused his platelet levels to plummet.
What if it came back?
“Nobody really knows,” said Nghia Lam. “It’s in God’s hands, almost.”
Few understand, truly, what Dakota has been through: memory loss, speech impediments, headaches that feel like needles stabbing her brain. But she ignores everything, hiding everything behind a happy smile to be here.
Golf may cause Lam pain, but it’s also his happy place, a carefree present in the face of an uncertain future. The flus, the complaints, the negativity she feels won’t change her situation.
“I try to be as optimistic as possible about it,” Lam said. “Try to make the most of what I have.”
Nghia, an engineer and former golfer, figured that if he got his daughter hooked on golf, she would spend more time with him.
So since she was 7, they would go to the shooting range for a few hours every day after school, with Lam falling in love with the sport.
She never played in amateur competitions while perfecting a swing that could drive a ball over 200 yards since she was young. Lam was thrilled to join the Fountain Valley team, a solid program that ended within a stroke of winning a championship title last year.
“She just has a really long, smooth golf swing,” Fountain Valley coach Carter Keyser said.
But in August 2020, before his freshman year, Lam noticed spots on his skin, called petechiae. Doctors determined that his levels of platelets, cells that help blood clot, were remarkably low. Various remedies didn’t work, and Lam went to the hospital for a week in late September, so tired she could barely put on her pants.
“I told him, ‘In life, you’re going to fall many times, that’s how you get back up. ‘Just…don’t die.’
— Nghia Lam, Dakota’s father
After her blood pressure suddenly went out of whack, a CT scan revealed she had an amount of blood in her brain the size of “four golf balls”, Nghia said.
“She got so close,” her father said, holding his index finger and thumb millimeters apart.
They don’t talk about the possibility of any of this happening again.
That fall, Lam was intubated for four days. When a doctor told her dad she needed to learn to walk again, she gave him a thumbs up.
Much to Nghia’s shock, she started walking again four days later.
“I told him, ‘In life, you’re going to fall many times – that’s how you get up,'” Nghia said, pausing.
“’Just…don’t die,’ I sobbed.
A few months after the stroke, Keyser called Lam to punch during his first practice in Fountain Valley when blood started gushing out of his nose, his dad recalled, smearing his sweater.
“It was kind of a scare for everyone,” Lam said.
But Lam was determined to play. She took off the sweater and continued.
“She’s not giving up,” her father said. “She’ll keep coming, bleeding or not bleeding.”
School was a challenge – sometimes she would forget everything she had studied the night before, her short term memory still recovering. But she dreamed of playing golf in college and expected the best from herself.
“I felt like I was starting from square one again,” Lam said.
Shortly after his freshman year, Lam suffered a wrist injury from trying too hard to compensate for the weakness in his right side. After rehab, her first game was “terrible”, she recalls. The practices weren’t much easier. She would grab the club and thoughts of panic would set in.
“Everyone has their own drawbacks, and that’s mine. I just have to deal with it and move on.
I need to take a hit. I need to have this chip.
Her hands started shaking, feeling like they were going to fall off, she said.
“Sometimes I worry about her,” teammate Kendyl Thitathan said, “because she’s so hard on herself.”
Through ups and downs, headaches and days off, Lam worked to resume the lesson. Her scores gradually improved and she hit a major milestone by finishing a shot close to a gold medal with an above-par performance against Huntington Beach last year.
“Just coming back here and playing decently, I think, is kind of an accomplishment for me,” Lam said.
In February, after receiving his COVID-19 reminder, Lam’s symptoms returned.
She spent most of the spring in the hospital, her platelet count plummeting again. Doctors gave him Rituxan, which is commonly used to treat cancer.
“You live hand to mouth,” Nghia said.
She stabilized in June and is in remission. But doctors aren’t sure if the problem has really gone away, her father said.
“She thinks she’s getting over it, you know?” said Nghia. “I don’t want to tell him anything other than that.”
In four games this season, she averaged the second-lowest nine-hole score by a team aspiring to a state championship.
“She’s just super consistent…she’s always in the top five, always,” Keyser said.
One day recently, she told her father about every shot she had landed – an encouraging sign, Nghia said, that she might be healthy enough to play in college. But his journey is not over.
While training two weeks ago, Thitathan said, Lam was trying to get out of a bunker and hit her club against the sand, the vibration triggering pain in her wrist. She grimaced and her friend urged her to call for help.
No. Lam brushed it off, Thitathan said, and kept playing.
“Everyone has their own drawbacks, and that’s mine,” Lam said. “You just have to deal with it and move on.”