Emma Jacoby used to have a headache every moment of every day.
It was just normal for the Lincoln North Star junior.
Four years ago, though, the headaches began to worsen. Looking down to study her homework became excruciating. So was swinging a golf club.
“It feels like your head is going to explode,” she said.
The pain became so bad last year that she could take only 15 swings at practice, and then five.
She couldn't focus on strategy while she was competing. All she could think about was how much her head hurt after every shot.
Yet she didn't want to quit.
“It's something I did my whole life,” Jacoby said. “It would be a drastic thing to switch.”
Doctors believed that Jacoby's headaches were severe migraines. But last April, Jacoby's mom, Lori, had seen enough. She wanted her daughter to undergo an MRI exam.
They visited Dr. Jennifer Hanowell, a neurologist who at the time was working at Boys Town National Research Hospital. She discovered that Jacoby had been born with a condition called Chiari Malformation. It's a problem in the cerebellum, at the base of the brain where the spinal column joins the skull. Areas of the cerebellum shaped like tonsils enlarge and squeeze through the hole at the base of the skull and into the spinal canal.
“When I'd look down at a golf ball or homework,” Emma said, “it would squish even more and I would get terrible headaches.”
If the condition had gone untreated, Jacoby could have become paralyzed. Instead, she underwent surgery last May at Children's Hospital.
Hanowell referred the family to Midwest Neurosurgeons. Dr. Mark Puccioni took five millimeters off the base of the skull and took away part of the first vertebra to give everything room. He used tissue from the top of her brain as a patch to close the incision.
She spent eight days in the hospital. Six weeks later, she started golfing again. Now, she has a new normal.
“It's so different. It didn't only affect golf, it affected school,” she said. “I can focus more in school, I don't get headaches trying to take notes. I feel like I can focus more when I play golf.”
Jacoby is a straight-A student who didn't allow herself to miss class because of her headaches.
Now she's back at the state golf tournament for the third time after losing a playoff for first place in the District A-4 tournament at Lake Maloney Golf Course in North Platte.
Four golfers shot 85. Two were eliminated on the first playoff hole. Jacoby and Lincoln Southwest's Ellie Wiltfong went two more holes before Jacoby missed a putt.
She said it was a thrill to qualify.
“All the girls that are going have probably played all summer,” Jacoby said. “It's exciting to think I made it even though I didn't get the extra time like they did.”
Jacoby, who averages an 82, had to relearn her swing after surgery. She had been working with pro Greg Johannesen before her operation, and he helped her mold a simpler style, avoiding any of the bad habits she'd picked up.
Her short game was always good, North Star coach Scott Friesen said, but that work with Johannesen changed the length of her drives.
“She's been hitting a lot longer off the tee,” Friesen said. “Her power game is what has been the biggest improvement in her game this year.”
Jacoby shot in the mid-90s last year at state, finishing with a two-day total of 191. No matter how she does Monday and Tuesday at Norfolk Country Club, she plans to continue playing.
She's hoping in another year to catch on with a college team and wants to study graphic design and advertising.
She can think about the future now instead of the next bad headache. She says it's amazing.
“It's a huge change,” she said. “I can't even describe after surgery what it felt like to not have a headache.”
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