My Sister's Story
by Stephanie Dallam, RN, MS
The movie "Million Dollar Baby" was fiction, but there was a real event that may have inspired FX Toole's story.
In the clearing stands a boxer,
And a fighter by his trade
And he carries the reminders
Of every glove that laid him down
And cut him till he cried out
In his anger and his shame,
"I am leaving, I am leaving"
But the fighter still remains...
--"The Boxer" by Paul Simon
Katie's story, like that of Maggie's, is that of a fighter -- a woman who has fought her whole life just to exist, and who loses everything in a boxing accident.
Today, few remember the tragic fight between Sumya Anani and Katie Dallam. However, in 1996, this event sent a chill through the emerging field of women's boxing.
Like Maggie in FX Toole's story, Katie is a headstrong woman from Missouri, who in her 30s, took up boxing.
In a mismatched fight that was poorly refereed, Katie was savagely beaten and severely injured. She was left permanently disabled. During the long rehabiliation process Katie despaired and entertained thoughts of suicide, not wanting to be dependent on anyone, and unable to bear the thought of not being able to care for herself.
Unlike the movie, Katie wasn't paid a million dollars to fight. She received only paid $300. In fact, the only thing approaching a million dollars in Katie's story has been her medical bills. And the no one involved (much less the boxing commission) offered to help pay any of these costs. Still, Katie's story shows that life can go on. This is her story.
Born May 1, 1959, Katie has always been a fighter.
She fought to survive a difficult childhood and troubled adolescence. She was an alcoholic by age 14.
She served in the Air Force. After 4 years of service in the military, Katie overcame her alcoholism and went on to get a Master's Degree as an Educational and Counseling Psychologist. She graduated with a 4.0 grade average. She worked for the State of Missouri as a substance abuse counselor.
Katie turned to exercise to deal with the stress of working with the chronically ill and often homeless population she served. She did long distance running until she sustained back injuries after being hit by a run away city bus. She also painted. Her impressionistic watercolors were shown in small cafes around Columbia, Missouri where Katie lived.
Looking to strengthen herself and gain the release that she had achieved by running, Katie took up kick boxing. She later practiced boxing at a local gym. She liked the feeling of strength that boxing gave her. For the first time in her life, she felt like she could protect herself. When running, she would train for half-marathons. In boxing, she looked for a similar goal to motivate her workouts in the gym.
In fall of 1996, Katie heard of a manager who would work with women boxers in Kansas City. She went to see him. He was an older man who appeared to be in his late-60s or so. He trained her for 6 weeks on the weekends and then told her that she was ready to fight professionally. He told her that he had found her an easy fight with a woman that didn't know how to box right. There was no risk and no one gets hurt, he promised. Katie was offered $300.
Her job with the State of Missouri didn't pay well and Katie was glad for the offer. She asked me, her sister Stephanie, to attend and take pictures. I was apprehensive, but wouldn't let my sister travel alone to a city where she was a stranger to fight alone. I met her trainer Joe. He assured me that no one would be hurt.
It turns out the other woman was experienced and had never been beaten. She was over 10 years younger than Katie and very fast. Moreover, the woman's manager also turned out to be the promoter who put on the fight. Right before the fight, he took Katie's gloves away from her. He insisted that Katie wear a pair of very heavy gloves with extra padding. Katie was forced to wear a pair of gloves that were sweaty from a prior fight.
As soon as the bell sounded, Anani rushed at Katie with her arms moving in a windmill type motion. She threw continuous roundhouse type punches. All Katie remembers seeing Anani rush at her swinging with her arms wildly. She had never seen anything like it. The last thing Katie remembers is wondering how to protect herself from this type of fighting.
It is unclear which the 140 some blows ruptured the main blood vessel in Katie's brain.
All I can say is that what I saw sickened and terrified me. I remember blow after blow raining down on her -- some hitting the top of her head. The referee didn't intervene except to break them up if they got locked up. Katie's nose was broken and bloody by the first round. The doctor never checked her. The fight continued despite the fact that Katie was bleeding hard enough to smear blood on the other fighter and couldn't breath through her nose.
Before the women's bout, two men had fought. One of the men recieved a slight cut on his cheek. The fight was immediately stopped and the doctor got up to check on the guy. The bleeding was stopped before the fight was continued. This had put me a bit more at ease, as it suggested that the officials cared about the fighters.
Unfortunately, different rules seemed to apply for the women's fight. The crowd was eager for blood and roared their approval when Katie was hurt. Men yelled "Kill her" as Katie was repeatedly hit in the head by Anani -- who calls herself the "Jamaican Sensation". The crowd was clearly for Anani -- Katie's name wasn't even on the play bill. What was she to them? Just the warm body drummed up for "their" girl to beat.
Although she was unable to mount a defense much less an offense, Katie refused to go down. In the middle of the 4th round Katie's manager finally threw in the towel when Katie hung on the ropes.
The doctor who was seated with his wife and son, never left his seat. I met Katie as she exited the ring. She was pale and appeared to be in shock. She didn't seem to see me. I touched her arm; it was ice cold. She looked right through me and never said a word.
Once she got out of the arena, and out of the gaze of the jeering crowd, Katie complained that her head hurt and then passed out.
I rushed to her side. I am a Nurse Practitioner and experienced ICU nurse. I could see immediately that she was in serious trouble. Her eyes were fixed and dilated, she was unable to breath; she was dying. A friend and I tried to summon the doctor, but we were told he couldn't come because the next fight had already started. We kept insisting. They finally stopped the fight and he came to the backroom where Katie lay dying. An ambulance was called. The ringside doctor just stood there looking at her. I called for an airway and oxygen. I was told that they didn't have any medical equipment. The doctor and several guys hired to provide security asked me to step back. I remember standing in horror as they doing nothing, watching over her until the ambulance came.
The EMTs tried to stabilize Katie for transport, but couldn't. They finally took her to the hospital. I was left alone. I tried without avail to get someone to give me directions to the hospital. Someone finally told me what road to take, but didn't bother to write them down. I got lost in the dark, driving up and down old country roads. When I finally got to the hospital, the doctor told me that she needed immediate surgery as Katie's brain was close to herniating. In other words, the pressure in her brain was so great that it was starting to press into her brain stem and spinal cord. Herniation is always fatal. Against all odds, Katie hung on and made it to the operating room.
The surgeon later told me that when he removed the top of her skull, the blood shot up and hit the ceiling of the operating suite. The neurosurgeon struggled to repair the damage. A major blood vessel in her brain was so severely damaged that there was nothing left to sew together. Instead he had to patch it and hope the patch would hold. She survived surgery and was moved to ICU.
It seemed unlikely that Katie would survive the next 24 hours since the brain continues to swell after surgery. I was allowed in briefly so I could see her.
Still holding the camera that she had asked me to bring so that she could have pictures of the fight, I snapped one last picture and told her good-bye. I went home to notify our family. As an ICU nurse, the only people I had seen with a head injury like Katie's had been shot in the head or ejected from a car in a high speed crash. These people frequently did not survive and if they did, they often remained in comas for months -- sometimes forever. I had little hope that she would fair any differently. In fact, I expected the next phone call to be from the doctor asking me whether I wanted to donate her organs.
This is the picture I took. It was December 12, 1996 about 5 am.
Katie Remains a Fighter
I drove home. After the painful job of calling my father, younger brother and other sister, I called back to hospital to see if my sister was still alive. She was. I hoped that she would hang on until the rest of the family could make it from various parts of the country to St. Joseph, Missouri.
I later drove to the airport to pick up our youngest sister Elizabeth who had just flown in. When I returned to the hospital that afternoon, Katie's condition had improved. Our younger brother arrived later than evening.
When I took my younger brother and sister to see Katie, it was hard for them to even recognize her. Gone was her thick red hair and mischievous smile. These had been replaced by tubes and bandages. Her shaved and swollen head was swaddled in white gauze. Her face was pale. Her nose was broken and both eyes were black and swollen completely shut. She was still in a coma, but was more responsive. I talked to her in soothing tones and held her hand. She squeezed my fingers. I tried not to get my hopes up. As an ICU nurse, I had watched too many people die.
Katie, however, hung on.
The next day (December 13, 1996), a front page story ran in the St. Josheph News-Press. titled "Female Boxer Serious Hurt." The story quoted the ringside doctor as saying Katie had been fine both during and after the fight. He said, "She seemed alert and oriented and was conversing freely." As previously noted, he had never once left his seat to examine or check on her during or after the bout. I am the one who met her as she walked out of the ring. The vacant uncomprehending look in her eyes that I saw, was later mentioned mentioned by a sports writer who was in the audience that night. (see Boxing Fan's Confession -"You could see it in Katie Dallam's eyes when she stumbled out of the ring Wednesday night at the smokey fire-fighter's bingo hall. There was no one there.")
The same story in St. Josheph News-Press quoted the fight promoter as saying that every precaution had been taken during the fight. He also said that he had visited her and she was in "stable condition" and she was "alert". This is not what I observed nor what the medical records report. The hospital listed Katie in "guarded condition". Rather than being "alert", she had been on a ventilator struggling for her life.
The cover-up over what had happened that night in St. Joseph, Missouri had begun. Next, the fight promoter "lost" the tape that had been made of the fight.
Since then, few in the boxing world have wanted to talk about or much less remember what happened to Katie Dallam on that cold December night in Missouri. The boxing commission did not send so much as a "get well" card, much less offer to help with the enormous medical bills.
Concerned over the dishonest behavior displayed by the people who set up and monitored the fight, I contacted a lawyer. He was able to get some of the footage from a local news station before they routinely erased the tape. [This footage remains in my possession, though it is not something that I have ever wanted to see again.] The lawyer watched it and counted 141 blows to Katie's head. The film shows that Katie was bleeding throughout the fight and does not show the fight being stopped or the doctor checking on her. We were not able to sue sued anyone because Missouri has few rules that regulate boxing -- basically anything goes. In addition, women's boxing is not accepted; women who got hurt were viewed by many as "getting what they deserved."
Katie remembers nothing of her hospital stay. It was several weeks before she showed any sign of being herself. For the first several weeks, she had the look of a scared child. She slept most of the time, but when awake seemed fearful and anxious. She seemed wary of those around her; as if she were looking for the next blow.
Katie wants people to know that unlike Maggie in Mr. Toole's book, Katie had the support of her friends and her family. Each member of her immediate family dropped what they were doing and caught the next plane to St. Joseph, Mo. Here is a picture (from left to right) of her younger brother Thomas Dallam, her father Lawrence Dallam, and her younger sister Elizabeth Dallam at her bedside. I took the picture. Katie's mother and older brother (the one referenced in the New York Times article), died several years prior to her injury.
Because of Katie's extreme fearfulness, and vulnerability, we tried to have someone stay with her all times.
It was a slow process, but Katie slowly inched her way back into this world. She had, however, lost all of her memory. She had no idea who she was, where she was or what had happened to her. A large portion of the left side of Katie's brain was damaged, some of it was destroyed completely.
She had difficulty finding words to express the simplist of thoughts. What she was able to say was telling. At one point, she looked up at her little sister and asked, "How long will I be crazy?"
After being discharged from the ICU in St. Joseph, Katie was transported by ambulence to a rehab hospital in her hometown of Columbia, Missouri. She spent the next 6 weeks working to relearn how to speak, walk, and do the most basic of tasks. She was then discharged to her home with the plan that the rest of her rehabilitation would be done in day treatment as an outpatient. However, the insurance company balked, refusing to pay for outpatient treatment. They suggested that I place her in a nursing home. I refused. It was my turn to fight.
Katie had lost her memory and ability to live independently. She was partially blind. She didn't remember her friends and was unable to care for herself. She didn't even know how to dial a phone. Yet she insisted on going back to her home. During the period of time that she received no treatment, she became increasingly suicidal. In a follow-up visit to the social worker, Katie spoke of her plan to kill herself. The social worker told me and Katie that she could not return to her home.
I took Katie home to live with me in Kansas. I battled the insurance company until they agreed to pay for the rehabilitation services that their policy had clearly promised.
I then enrolled Katie in an outpatient rehabilitation hospital, where Katie recieved Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy. For the next two years, I placed my life on hold to care for her. In addition to her other therapies, I also took Katie to a special hosptial for Low Vision Therapy where they would help her learn to compensate for her partially blindness.
During this time, Katie remained intermittently suicidal and required constant care and monitoring. Our younger sister, Elizabeth, came and spent that summer to help out with Katie's care. Recognizing that Katie needed an outlet for her
emotions, we enrolled Katie in an art class called "Paint or Die." Katie began to paint out her anguish. The art also helped her begin to process what had happened to her.
Picture Katie did of the fight and other paintings she did in the summer of 1997
Today, although she is permanantly disabled, Katie has reclaimed her life through her art. Her art always to express the feelings that she continues to find difficult to put into words. It also provides her with a since of purpose and wholeness. She tells me that only when she is painting does she feel "normal".
Katie has progressed enormously from where she started. She is now able to live independently with help from her family. She lives frugally in a small basement apartment. Her income from social security is supplemented by her father, who pays for her to take art classes at the local community college -- Johnson County Community College -- where Katie spents her days painting and sculping. Katie who had been a very dedicated drug and alcohol abuse counseler currently views her art as her life's work. Through it, she is able to share her story and her unique view of the world.
She recently had her first art show in Kansas City, Missouri. The show has received critical acclaim. More information about this show, can be found in the section on shows.
Katie also seeks to help others like herself. She recently was the guest of honor at a fundraiser in Boson for The Ivy Street School, one of the nation's only schools for children with brain injuries. Before her talk, Katie visited the school to meet the students. The children seemed eager to talk to someone who had experienced challenges similar to their own and Katie was touched by each of their struggles.
Katie speaking on behalf of the disabled