Dateline NBC
updated 4/26/2005 12:53:13 PM ET 2005-04-26T16:53:13

How long does it take to completely shatter a life? For Katie Dallum, the answer was seven minutes. It took seven minutes to lose a boxing match, to injure her brain beyond repair and to forfeit everything about the life she once led. Dallum was nobody's million dollar baby. But her story bears a striking resemblance to the movie that won best picture at this year's Academy Awards. The Clint Eastwood epic doesn't mirror her life exactly, and the endings are very different. But in some ways, the real story is even better, and more inspiring, than the best Hollywood had to offer.

Katie Dallam: “If I had lost the side of my brain that all my artwork is from, I don't know if I would still be here. Because you know, that's the side of me that makes my life worth living.”

The haunting images in Katie Dallam's art come from a time and place she can barely recall, a tragedy that took place on a different kind of canvas 9 years ago.

Katie Dallam: “It just started coming out all the dark images and people might call them monsters or whatever. But to me, it was just what I was feeling inside.”

Stone Phillips: “So, there's a part of you screaming to be free of what you've struggled with?”

Katie Dallam: “Yeah, just screaming to get out and yet feeling the impact of the injury, I guess.”

In 1996, Katie Dallam became the first female professional boxer seriously injured in the ring.  What happened to her that night would not only inspire her art, but it's believed to be the basis for a short story that became the blockbuster, Oscar-winning film, “Million Dollar Baby.”

Like the boxer in the movie, played by Hilary Swank, Katie's from Missouri and came to the sweet science late in life.  An Air Force veteran and recovering alcoholic, her real profession was counseling addicts. But after seeing this televised bout that landed a female boxer on the cover of “Sports Illustrated,” Katie was intrigued.

Katie Dallam: “I just thought it was kind of like, you know, I make a few hundred dollars and-"

Phillips: “And there was something exciting about it.”

Katie Dallam: “Yeah, and I just had kind of fun.”

So at age 37, Katie went looking for a trainer. But the one she found was nothing like the movie version.

Clint Eastwood's character was cautious to a fault with his fighters. Katie's trainer, who has since died, told her she was ready to turn pro after just six weekends of work. And she trusted his judgment.

Phillips: “He was a professional trainer.”

Katie Dallam: “Yeah.”

Phillips: “And he said, I got a fight for you?”

Katie Dallam: “Right, yeah. He had said that I would win it easily.”

The fighter he'd found, Sumya Anani, was 13 years younger than Katie and a ferocious puncher. She's currently the reigning world champion in three weight classes. She's a fighter who has trouble getting fights.

Phillips: “How would you describe your boxing style?”

Sumya Anani: “Fighter, boxer, puncher. I really feel like I can do all of them really well.”

Phillips: “Why do you think nobody wants to fight you?”

Sumya Anani: “I don't think there's anybody that can beat me and they know that.”

In 1996, Anani was also a relative newcomer, but her star was clearly on the rise. She was undefeated, 3-0, going into the fight against Katie. The setting was a firefighter's union hall in St. Joseph, Mo.

Stephanie Dallam: “Nothing fancy. They set up a boxing ring in it. There was chairs and tables around.”

Katie's older sister, Stephanie, no fan of boxing, went with her that night. A camera crew there captured the events on tape.

Phillips: “What was the scene like when you got there?”

Stephanie Dallam: “The atmosphere was more like a tavern before the fight. They stopped everything for 30 minutes to push beer. The women were fighting, let's drink up.”

Phillips: “And when the bell rang, the fight began. What did you see?”

Stephanie Dallam: “As soon as bell rang, Sumya came rushing, lunging at Katie. Her arms were already going like this. It was like a windmill coming at her.”

Katie Dallam: “It looked like some kind of-- I don't know machine coming towards me.”

The fight was scheduled for four rounds, two minutes each. Within seconds, Katie began taking a series of blows to the head.

Stephanie Dallam: “The crowd was enjoying it. And they were yelling things like, ‘Kick her ass! Kill her!’ And you know at this point, I was feeling physically ill.”

Phillips: “This is your sister.”

Stephanie Dallam: “This is my sister. And I just wanted it to stop.”

Katie Dallam: “I just have this vision of getting hit and everything goes blank.”

Despite all the punches Katie was taking, the referee told Dateline he saw no reason to end the fight in the early rounds. And Dan Smith, the ring doctor that night, says nothing he saw led him to think Katie was in trouble -- and watching the fight again with us, he says, only confirmed his opinion.

Phillips: “Any sense it should have been stopped earlier, as you look at it?  I mean a lot of shots, a lot of blows to the head.”

Dr. Dan Smith: “Sure. She never fell once. She never fell to the ground. She kept her gloves up. She defended herself. Unfortunately, it's easy in hindsight to say, yeah it would have been great to stop the fight. But at what point? Katie was still boxing to the end. But when a boxer doesn't fall, when a boxer continues to swing back at the opponent, how do you know?”

Halfway through the fourth and final round, after Katie had taken well 100 blows to the head, the referee finally stepped in. The fight was over -- but the real battle was about to begin. Stephanie rushed to her sister's aid.

Stephanie Dallam: “Katie looks wobbly to me, I go to the side of the ring and I meet her as she's coming down those stairs. And she doesn't look at me… She's walking on her own. But she's walking like a sleepwalker, you know. She doesn't seem to even see me. I say, ‘Katie, Katie,’ and I touch her, and her arm was pale and really cold and clammy. And I'm thinking, you know, she's in shock. She won't respond to me. And then the next thing I hear she complained of a headache. And then she threw up and passed out in the dressing room, and if there was no one there she'd have died alone in that dressing room.”

As a pediatric intensive care nurse, Stephanie recognized the gravity of the situation immediately. By the time Katie was brought to a local hospital, she was comatose, her brain compressed by massive bleeding in her head. A neurosurgeon rushed her into the operating room.

Stephanie Dallam: “He was very straight with me. It was hard for him to reconcile the injury he was seeing with a boxing match. Because the main vein in her brain was decimated. He couldn't sew it back together.”

The doctor was not hopeful as he emerged from three hours of emergency brain surgery.

Stephanie Dallam: “He's letting me know without saying that her brain can't survive this. He's letting me know that people don't survive those kinds of injuries.”

Stephanie Dallam: “And I spent those three hours in the chapel. And I truly didn't know what to pray for, because I'd seen enough that you just don't pray, please let her live. Because you don't know what you're asking for. You know, you might not get the kind of quality of life that would be meaningful to her. And Katie wasn't a person who was going to want to be comatose in a nursing home for the rest of her life or something like that. So I just said, you know, whatever's best for Katie, let that happen.”

Phillips: “That was your prayer?”

Stephanie Dallam: “That was my prayer.”

Like the boxer in “Million Dollar Baby,” Katie survived. And in the days to follow, she, too, faced the ultimate question of whether her life was worth living. The choice Katie made would be different, but her story about the spirit that guided her decision is every bit as dramatic as the movie that moved millions to tears.

No one will ever know which punch did the damage to Katie Dallam. Some, including her opponent that night, have suggested that Katie might have been injured before she even got in the ring because she and her trainer had been in a car accident the night before.

According to the police report, the trainer was treated for a cut on his head,  but there's no mention of Katie being hurt and she told us she wasn't.

In the ring, she'd taken more than 100 blows to the head and now lay in a Missouri hospital bed, hovering between life and death. 

Stephanie Dallam: “I was just glad that I got to see her, you know, one more time. And I had the camera with me, and so I took a picture, because I didn't think anybody else would see her again until she was in a coffin. And I told her that I understood if she had to go. So I told her, you do what you have to do. I'll live with it.”

Phillips: “In terms of her will to live?”

Stephanie Dallam: “Her survival. I couldn't ask her to live for my sake or for anybody else's. It had to be for her own. If she was going to live, it had to be for her own.”

While her family wondered if she would survive, Katie says her only memory from that time is a powerful vision. Her mother, who had died years earlier of breast cancer, appeared to Katie.

Katie Dallam: “We're sitting somewhere and I don't want to say in the clouds, but it was somewhere high. I don't know. A mountain or something. And I'm telling her, you know, that I'm coming to be with her, that I want to live with her now. And she said, ‘You can't.’ And oh I'm very angry at her. And I remember just sort of turning my head away from her and just feeling like how can she say I can't? You know like that's all I wanted to do at that point.”

Phillips: “And how did end?”

Katie Dallam: “Well she told me it wasn't my time yet. I mean I don't know if this was a dream or what it was, you know? But it was just like I have to-- you have to go back down there, you know? And I really didn't want to, but that was what she said, so that's what I did.”

Shortly after that vision, against all medical odds, Katie awoke from her coma.

Katie Dallam: “I remember my dad standing there and I was saying, where's mom? And then you know they would say, ‘Well, you know, she's dead.’ And then I said, no she's not. I was just talking to her. Where is she?”

Phillips: “It had been that real.”

Katie Dallam: “Oh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. In fact that was more real to me than, you know waking up there was.”

As relieved as her family was to see Katie conscious, it was immediately apparent that she was seriously impaired. The injury had destroyed part of her brain.

Stephanie Dallam: “She didn't know who she was. She didn't have any memory of anything.”

Slowly, Katie would have to relearn how to walk, eat and speak. Still, for all the remarkable progress she would make, she knew she would never be the person she once was. Worst of all, Katie blamed herself for everything that had happened, her decision to box, her injuries, even the mental fog she now lived in.

It all led her to the same crossroads that the paralyzed boxer in “Million Dollar Baby” came to.

Phillips: “Do you think you were serious about taking your own life?”

Katie Dallam: “You know I don't know. But my body was in horrible pain. You know I had these horrible, horrible headaches. Everything, and my sister could tell you, I mean she had to put me in rehab for everything.“

Though Katie doesn't remember it, Stephanie says her sister actually had a plan to take her life. It was

foiled because Katie's brain injury left her incapable of telling a lie. So she revealed her plan to a social worker.

Stephanie Dallam: “And Katie's like, oh yeah. I'm planning to kill myself, yes. And told that how she was going to do it. “

Phillips: “Which was?”

Stephanie Dallam: “Oh, she was going to take her-- she had her on meds. And she didn't even know what her meds were. But she knew that if she took at lot of them, you know, that might do her in.”

But with support from her family, Katie worked through her despair. She began adjusting to a life of disability. Almost nine years later, she still struggles with her balance, concentration and speech.  Even the simplest of words can escape her. 

But Katie's clear now about her reasons for living. She has never forgotten her mother's words in that vision that came to her in the hospital, that it wasn't her time to die. And there's something else -- perhaps more than anything, Katie now lives for her art.

Katie Dallam: “With the art, I think it's the only place I feel real, I guess, is the word I'm looking for. I feel like myself when I'm doing my art work. In any other setting I feel sort of not here kind of. If that makes any sense.”

But there's one more element to Katie's comeback. The memories of that awful night remained tucked away in the pages of a dusty scrapbook -- until earlier this year, when she and her sister spent a night at the movies.

Katie says watching “Million Dollar Baby” was like a gift. Though her own story diverged in many ways,  seeing a tragedy in the ring and realizing it wasn't the fighter's fault helped Katie throw in the towel on blaming herself.

Katie Dallam: “When I'm feeling like I can't function, you know, I beat myself up, basically. And just think I'm really stupid or something. And when I saw the movie it was like okay, that did happen to me and you know, I fought to stay alive and to get through it. And so it made me feel that hey, I'm not such a failure, you know?”

Stephanie Dallam: “And it's like it lifted this guilt that she's been carrying.”

Phillips: “Self blame?”

Stephanie Dallam: “Self blame. Yeah. And thinking that she should have died, you know. And that she's for the first time that's lifted. And she is more alive because of it.”

Phillips: “You've come back.”

Katie Dallam: “Yeah. Yeah, that's what I hear.”

Katie Dallam will tell you that the support of her sister the vision of her mother and a movie that hit close to home have brought her life and her art into new and sharper focus. Her demons are still there, but their screams have been silenced.

Phillips: “Does life seem like it's worth living now?”

Katie Dallam: “Yeah. Yeah, I feel like maybe I have something to say, you know. Something to offer.”

Phillips: “A story to tell?”

Katie Dallam: “Yeah. A story to tell. That you know you can take some horrible experience and maybe you can turn it around.”

Phillips: “I sense there's still a fighter in you.”

Katie Dallam: “That's what they say.” 

When Katie Dallum agreed to sit down and tell her story, she had one request: That we express her gratitude to Clint Eastwood. We did, this week. Also, Sumya Anani, the other fighter in the ring that night, has dedicated her career to Katie. She told us if she ever gets her million-dollar shot, or even a fraction of that, she'll donate her winnings to Katie.

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