If this Indiana high school junior hits her head, she could die. Golf is her refuge — and she’s good at it

MUNCIE, Ind. – If Belle Brown gets hit in the head, her brain could start bleeding. If she falls at just the right angle, or gets knocked just so by an elbow…

If Belle Brown hits her head, she could die.

None of this is fair for the Delta junior. She was a multi-sport athlete in fifth grade, and excelled at all of them. Volleyball was her love. She was trying out for a Munciana travel team when everything changed.

Her passions changed. Her perspective changed. Now, she wants to be one of the best golfers in Indiana. And she’s determined to make that happen.

“If I set a goal for myself, I know at the end of the day that I’m gonna achieve that goal, because of how much drive I have for anything that I do,” she said.

* * *

Maybe it was the pillow.

That’s what her mom, Kelly Stitt, thought when Brown complained of a sore neck one Sunday in 2016. She was 11 years old and in fifth grade, and had just spent the night at a friend’s house. Two days later, on a Tuesday morning, she had a pea-sized lump on her neck. During the middle of the day, Stitt got a text from Belle’s PE teacher. The lump that had been the size of a pea was the size of a golf ball.

Stitt took her daughter to the doctor, where she was given antibiotics. The next morning, she woke up with a fever. The lump was even bigger. After another trip to the doctor, it was time to go to the hospital in Muncie for IV antibiotics.

The needle wouldn’t go in her arm  — her veins were too small, they stuck her eight times — so they put it in her neck. They ran tests and waited for results. Doctors got nowhere. Brown, who never got headaches, started getting excruciating ones.

Doctors thought she might have lymphoma. They sent her to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis for a biopsy.

After more than a week in the hospital and still waiting for results, the doctor was ready to send Belle home where she might be more comfortable. That’s when her mom noticed peeling skin on her hands.

“It was like this light bulb went off,” Stitt said.

Belle Brown lines up a putt during a tournament. (Photo: Gus Martin/The Star Press)

The doctor explained what he suspected the diagnosis was: Kawasaki disease. It causes inflammation in the walls of blood vessels, and is most common in infants and young children. Some of the earliest signs can be swollen lymph nodes, a fever and peeling skin. They immediately did an EKG test. Her heart was functioning normally. However, they did find four large aneurysms.

“I’m panicking at this point,” her mom said.

They were assigned to a cardiologist, and Belle was put on a blood thinner. Finally, after 13 days in the hospital, they went home.

Once they got home, reality set in.

Name a sport, and Belle played it growing up. She’d run a mini-marathon with her mom not long before her diagnosis. Now, she couldn’t play any more contact sports. She couldn’t do any activities where she might fall, get bumped or jostled. No PE. No recess.

“She can’t get hit in the head,” her mom said. “If she gets hit in the head, she can have a brain bleed and die. They told me no matter what kind of helmet I put on her head, it will not protect her.”

For months, Brown was confined to the couch.

“I tried to just keep myself busy watching TV shows or stuff like that, but it killed my mental game. I felt like I was in a slump,” Brown said. “All my friends could go do stuff. All my cousins could go and play their sports and ride bikes.”

“She was this active kid, so that was really hard for her,” Stitt said. “It was really rough for all of us.”

As the months went on, they tried all sorts of things to keep Brown busy — Theater. Clubs. In eighth grade, she was a manager on the volleyball team. None of it scratched that competitive itch.

“Finally, I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Brown said. “‘I’ve got to get myself active again. I’ve got to be doing something.’”

In February 2018, 16 months after her daughter left the hospital, Stitt begged the cardiologist to let Brown play something. He suggested golf.

Brown had never picked up a club before, but her uncles had. Stitt called them for advice. They said to get Brown a swing coach. So they did.

She spent a year learning the fundamentals. It was a slow process.

“It took me a long time to really understand all the rules,” she said. “I didn’t really understand it. I knew the swing method, but hitting it off the ground, it was just so weird to me.”

When she played in her first tournament, she shot a 92.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s good for me. Maybe I should actually start focusing on this and trying to get better,’” she said.

And she has. Last season, as a sophomore, she was the individual medalist in the Delaware County and sectional tournaments. This season, she was the top finisher in the Monroe Central Invitational and was runner-up in the conference match. Her nine-hole average is 40.27 and her 18-hole average is 81.5.

Delta won its sectional on Saturday. Brown finished second among all golfers, shooting a 77.

Just how dedicated is she to her craft? When her first swing coach moved to Dayton, Ohio, Stitt drove Brown the hour and a half each week to practice. She eventually switched swing coaches, but he moved to West Lafayette. They make that trip, too.

Away from the golf course, there are still challenges. Her aneurysms have shrunk, but she’s still on blood thinners. She does a test every two weeks to make sure her blood isn’t too thick. She goes to Riley for EKGs and echocardiograms. She still limits the activities she does, and there’s the occasional scare — last year, when she fell and hit her head, she had to go to the hospital to make sure she was OK.

“I used to not really like people knowing that I had this issue,” she said. “I was almost embarrassed about it. But I think it’s pretty cool now, what I’ve grown to be.”

Her mom has learned to let go.

“At the beginning, I felt like I wanted to put her in a bubble,” Stitt said. “I was so hesitant to let her do anything on her own. At 11 years old, they don’t always think about all the risks involved in everything they do. Now, I try to not hold her back from anything, except for contact sports. I try to let her be a kid and let her do the things that she wants to do.”

And Brown has learned to live life without fear and to embrace the journey she’s on.

“I used to not really like people knowing that I had this issue,” she said. “I was almost embarrassed about it. But I think it’s pretty cool now, what I’ve grown to be.”