Inspiring Teen
August 01, 2020

The story of Kendall Kemm is even more inspiring than the viral video of her one-armed golf swing

Kendall Kemm has attracted attention from golf pros such as Nick Faldo. (Kemm family photo)

Nick Faldo was perusing Twitter while relaxing on the beach in Florida earlier this week when he noticed that someone tagged him in a video that showed a teenage girl hitting a golf ball one-handed as her left arm dangled helplessly, if not obstructively by her side. The thought was that perhaps the six-time major champion could offer a few pointers that could help the teen. So Faldo scrambled back to his house and got to work recording a few tips.

Kendall Kemm displays her one-armed golf swing.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, sports were always a big part of Kendall Kemm’s life. The Eagles and Phillies dominated her attention, and for two decades her mom, Leslie Gudel, worked for Comcast SportsNet, first hosting two nightly studio shows and then serving as the network’s Phillies reporter from 2010 through 2016. When Kendall wasn’t watching games, she was playing them—softball, field hockey and basketball—along with her brother Chase, who is two years her junior and also plays baseball and basketball.

In 2014, Gudel introduced them to golf because she had fallen in love with the game growing up in California, where her own parents turned her on to it. Working in the sports biz and having played in countless celebrity outings, she also realized the value that being able to play golf possesses.

One summer day six years ago Gudel brought her two kids to the local Golf Galaxy for lessons. Both took to it immediately, but Kendall showed a particular ability with a swing that would quickly prove fluid, effortless and natural.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who has talent and who doesn’t,” said Leigh Taylor, a PGA professional for the last 15-plus years who gave Gudel’s kids their first series of lessons. “Kendall showed exceptional skills right away. She appreciated having fun but also learning and executing a difficult game. She kept coming back.”

Until one day she didn’t.

It was Oct. 25, 2014, a bucolic fall day in the Philly ’burbs. High blue sky, sun shining, leaves bursting in brilliant orange and red and gold. A cool but comfortable Saturday morning, Kendall, 10 years old at the time, sprang out of bed early, filled with anticipation and excitement because her softball coach had told her that she could finally play catcher for the first time in that weekend’s tournament.

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By nature, Kemm is clumsy, she says, often tripping or dropping things. Her athletic but lanky frame outsized her age and occasionally she was unable to contain her energetic personality. But when she went to the refrigerator to get a bottle of water that morning she face-planted into it and crashed to the kitchen floor. It struck her as a little too clumsy, but she didn’t think much of it, and a kid being a kid she didn’t say anything about it to anyone, even as she continued to fumble with the water bottle. During the car ride to the field, though, she finally fessed up that something might be wrong, telling her mom that her left foot wasn’t working like it should.

When they got there, the mother of a friend who had a medical background ran her fingers up the back of Kendall’s legs. Kendall felt nothing in her left leg as the woman’s fingernails dragged across the back of it. It was then that the friend told Gudel to take her daughter to get checked out immediately. On the way to Bryn Mawr Hospital, meanwhile, Kendall kept dropping the water bottle in her left hand. By the time they got to the hospital, she couldn’t walk on her own and Gudel had to help her to the emergency room.

Kendall was having a stroke.

She was immediately transferred to Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in nearby Wilmington, just across the Delaware border, where an angiogram revealed that a large arteriovenus malformation had ruptured in her brain.

An image of Kendall Kemm's brain shows the tangle of blood vessels known as an AVM. (Image provided by Kemm's family)

An AVM, according to the Mayo Clinic, is an abnormal tangle of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins that disrupts blood flow and oxygen circulation. Arteries take oxygen-rich blood from the heart to the brain and veins carry oxygen-depleted blood back to the lungs and heart. When an AVM disrupts the process, surrounding tissues don’t get enough oxygen, causing the affected arteries and veins to weaken and rupture.

Though AVMs can occur anywhere in the body, they are most often found on the spine or brain. If one is in the brain and it ruptures, it can cause a hemorrhage, brain damage or a stroke. Often patients with an AVM have no symptoms and the AVM is uncovered only incidentally. Small AVMs can also be difficult to find, but at eight centimeters Kendall’s jumped off the image at nearly three times the size of most. Put another way, AVMs are graded on a scale of 0-6. Kendall’s was a 5.

“The first thing the neurosurgeon at duPont said was, ‘It’s a rat’s nest in there,’” Gudel says. “Oh my god, you’re convinced she’s gonna die. That was my first thought.”

Kendall spent the next dozen days in the hospital recovering from the stroke but was saddled with a limp in her left leg, though use of her left hand did return the day after she arrived. At the end of her stay, doctors told her that she could go home and should resume living her life as normal. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Gudel says that she later discovered that doctors had missed three aneurysms on the angiogram and that her only daughter was in fact “a ticking time bomb.”

There are three ways to treat AVMs: surgery, emobilization or radiation. Surgery wasn’t an option because of where the AVM is located, in the basal ganglia and thalamus portions of the brain. Translation: It’s too deep to remove safely by surgical procedure. Emobilzation, a minimally invasive process that involves injecting glue or other non-reactive liquid adhesive to block off the AVM, also wasn’t an option because in Kendall’s case there were too many veins and arteries present. That left radiation.

Over the next two months following the initial diagnosis, Gudel devoured as much information about the disease as she could. In the process, she connected with a family in Virginia through an AVM survivors’ website. That led her to Dr. Steven Chang, a professor and vice chairman of strategic development and innovation in the department of neurosurgery at Stanford University. “I remember sitting in a friend’s driveway when he called,” Gudel says. “He said, ‘We can help you,’ though he preached caution.”

After Kendall recovered from the stroke—which they would later find out was technically her third but the first that they knew of at the time—she was eventually able to resume playing basketball, field hockey and softball. But in February 2015, she and her mom flew to California to meet with Dr. Chang and Kendall underwent her first radiation treatment, with the highly concentrated dose blasting the back half of the AVM because that area of the tangled web was deemed most urgent given its position within her brain.

Kendall Kemm says of losing the use of her left hand, "I thought that was it. I thought I was finished." (Kemm family photo)

Five months later, she underwent another treatment at Stanford but shortly after doing so and while on her way to Washington D.C. for a Phillies-Nationals game that her mom was working, Kendall noticed that her left hand began to spontaneously curl up. She hasn’t been able to use it since, and her left leg remains severely weakened.

“I thought all my hard work of physical therapy and treatment had paid off,” Kendall said. “But after the radiation treatments and when [I lost use of my left hand] I thought that was it. I thought I was finished. I didn’t think I could play sports again. It was hard for a while.”

Once a vibrant, bright-eyed soul with an infectious smile and a natural leader with no fear, according to friends and family, Kendall’s confidence began to wane. Uncertainty and doubt proved a heavy burden. Gaining back confidence was difficult.

So were simple, mindless day-to-day tasks, like opening a water bottle, or putting her hair up in a ponytail. Imagine all the little things that you do and now imagine trying to do them using just one hand. The list of undoable tasks is long.

Kemm, now 16, is also unable to drive at the moment because the radiation treatments affected the lower quarter of her eyesight. Then last December, her aunt was blow drying her hair when Kendall told her she felt dizzy. She turned the blow dryer off, but it didn’t matter. Kendall’s vision was clouded by a cluster of white dots and she passed out, waking up on the floor in her aunt’s arms with Gudel running up the stairs to call 911. She’d had another stroke. Though the first two radiation treatments got rid of most of the AVM, doctors discovered that new veins had been recruited, with the AVM growing back to about 40 percent its original size. Another round of radiation was blasted into her head.

“It really pounded her,” Gudel said. “The upside was it meant the radiation was working. But we had to make a difficult decision as parents before we knew all the details. Do we risk putting her in even her current state or roll the dice and not know if it would be catastrophic. We didn’t want her to get to be 30 years old and be angry. It’s a hard decision to sacrifice a lot of normal life not knowing the outcome.”

And it wasn’t just the physical aspects of Kendall’s new life that took a toll. There were mental consequences as well—along the way she suffered PTSD on multiple occasions and had to be rushed to the hospital for fear of another stroke. There were other difficulties as well.

Kendall Kemm has kept a positive attitude about her circumstance. (Kemm family photo)

“High school is hard for me,” says Kendall, who will be a junior this fall. “High school people aren’t nice, especially high school girls. Different—I hate that word. But I hang out with my friends and they know everything about me, are super easy to talk to and they know when I can and can’t do things. They help through things and I don’t feel embarrassed.

“I’ve gotten pretty good at most things. I’m trying not to have pity parties all the time, though, and know this is something I’m going through and that it will get better. I’ve tried to have a positive outlook.”

In many ways, though, Kendall is like any other teen. She loves to rock out to the Jonas Brothers and DJ Khalid, is obsessed with television shows “Chicago PD,” “All American” and “Chrisley Knows Best,” and she hasn’t lost her love for the Eagles, Phillies or Villanova basketball. She also remains close to her father even though her parents are divorced.

Then there’s golf.

After a while in 2014, Taylor began to wonder why he hadn’t seen Kendall or her brother around the Golf Galaxy, so he phoned Gudel. She broke the news of what happened. Taylor was heartbroken for the girl and assumed she wouldn’t be able to play again.

Then one day last week Gudel finally called again. A few days prior to doing so, she’d asked Kendall if she wanted to give golf a try once more, knowing that she’d lamented not being able to play softball and then missing out on being her team’s manager when the season was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor was ecstatic to have her back. Though she missed the ball in her first couple of swipes with a 7-iron, Kendall quickly adapted, working her way up from chip shots to full swings. “It takes a lot of courage to play golf; the failure rate is high,” Taylor said. “Even with two arms and two legs it’s difficult.”

Even so, a couple of days later, after just that one lesson, Kendall ventured out to a local driving range. She was nervous, filled again with anticipation and anxiety, albeit in a different way than she was six years earlier on the eve of what she thought would be her debut as a catcher. Not that it showed. With Gudel rolling on her iPhone, Kendall nipped a ball off the artificial turf using her mom’s 9-wood, and with just her right arm to swing the club, she watched in delight as the shot sailed 120 yards in the air.

“I was super excited because I hadn’t thought about sports after the stroke,” Kendall said. “Softball was really difficult because of how fast everyone was playing and the positions I played are hard to play one-handed. But I started hitting shots, figuring out the rhythm and was consistent. It was pretty cool to know that I could do that and was still capable of it. Just hearing the ball hit the club was really cool.”

Not long after Gudel posted the video to Twitter it went viral. ESPN’s SportsCenter picked it up. Phil Mickelson responded. Faldo did, too. Blown away by the moment and inspired by the teen, he responded with a video of his own, offering up a virtual lesson to Kemm.

Gudel and her kids had just gotten in the car when she saw the tweet. Her response: “Holy f---ing s--t! Nick f---ing Faldo just sent you a golf lesson!”

“I saw the video and story and felt sad and sorry for what she was going through,” Faldo said. “I thought, well, I used to do a lot of one-handed hitting in my day.

“To see what she’s doing is courageous and inspiring. She could get pretty good if she’s got that kind of coordination already. She’s off to a good start, better than most people.”

Calls started pouring in, from local television stations to CNN. Though Kemm had her first brush with fame in the sports world two years ago when she threw out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game—former Indians pitcher Josh Tomlin’s father had also suffered an AVM in 2016 and became a family friend—her simple joy hitting a golf ball despite the use of just one arm resonated. Others took notice, including former pitcher Jim Abbott, who was born without a right hand and spent a decade in the major leagues, tossing a no-hitter as a member of the Yankees in 1994. The PGA Tour also reached out to invite Kemm to a tournament when it has fans again, while club companies have offered to send equipment and adaptive sports organizations have connected as well.

Along the way, Gudel, now a realtor, also started a foundation, creating Kendall’s Crusade in 2016 as a way to raise money and bring awareness to AVM research. According to studies, one out of roughly every 2,000 people has an AVM and each year about four out of every 100 will experience a life-threatening hemorrhage. In its first year, the non-profit raised $125,000, with all donations going to charity, including $75,000 to Stanford to further research as well as help establish a patient fund.

Though Kemm doesn’t want to be known as the one-armed golfer, she is embracing the ability to provide hope. “She doesn’t want to be thought of that way,” Gudel says. “She doesn’t see herself like that. At the same time, this is the first time I think she sees the power of being able to inspire other people.”

Still, a long road remains as doctors continue to monitor Kemm’s health. Though the future is brighter, it remains clouded at times by uncertainty. Another stroke could be around the corner. For now, though. she’s just happy to be able to enjoy her childhood again and return to a game that she once started to love.

“I don’t see it as one-handed golf, I see it as golf,” Kemm said. “I’m not going to stop doing the things I think I should be able to do with two hands. If I do give in, then I’m giving up.”

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