Two days in March, separated by three years, changed Mak Yost’s life forever.
The first came on March 19, 2018. Mak, then a senior at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Georgia, was two days removed from his prom night when he was in his weight training class with lacrosse trainer, Sam Viola, and many of his closest friends. A gym rat who played lacrosse, tennis and virtually any other sport you can name, Mak kept in outstanding shape and had no previous medical issues that had been brought to his attention. Of her four kids, Faye Yost describes Mak as the natural athlete who is fearless and endlessly optimistic.
“He’s the one where if there was a rollercoaster, he’s first in line,” Faye Yost said. “When I took my kids to learn how to surf, he’s the one who learned just like that. He was never afraid of anything.”
That’s part of why it was such a stunning turn of events when Mak became dizzy and then fell unconscious during that training session. Viola performed a sternum rub but, with the help of Mak’s friends around her, she immediately had to call for an ambulance to Kennestone Hospital as he remained unresponsive.
His life would never be the same.
Mak had suffered multiple strokes, the worst being on his left side, and doctors quickly diagnosed him with a brain arteriovenous malformation (better known by the abbreviation AVM), a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain. In layman terms, blood vessels had ruptured in the left side of his brain, causing the stroke which led to limited mobility and partial paralysis on his right side. Yost endured some smaller strokes on his right side in his basal ganglia – something detected two years after the fact – causing tremors on his left side that resemble Parkinson’s disease. He has recently been diagnosed with Vascular Parkinsonism.
Mak’s initial prognosis was that he may never speak again and the right side of his body would be permanently paralyzed, but he has far exceeded those expectations.
Mak needed emergency brain surgery to alleviate the pressure on his brain and didn’t wake up for nearly two weeks, surviving on a ventilator and feeding tube. He spent three weeks in the ICU before being taken to Shepherd Center’s Acquired Brain Injury Unit in Atlanta where it was determined he had finally emerged from his dulled level of alertness on April 20. Mak would then embark on a five-month rehab stint during which he was physically unable to speak. It wouldn’t be until July 26 when his family heard his voice for the first time as he sang with his sister, Jadyn.
That was just the start of a meandering, difficult journey to regain strength and motor skills. Mak, now 22, is completely aware and capable on the mental side, but he has trouble articulating his words and being loud enough for others to hear. In the four years that have followed the strokes, his life has been a revolving door of therapy and hospitals: occupational therapy every day, physical therapy two to three times per week and speech therapy once per week. He needs a wheelchair to get around. Faye quit her job as a middle school business education teacher to become his primary caregiver, but her son’s optimism and spirit has made that transition easier than it could have been. Mak’s initial prognosis was that he may never speak again and the right side of his body would be permanently paralyzed, but he has far exceeded those expectations.
“When this first happened to him, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, of all my kids, Mak was the one who always wanted to run and ride bikes and be very active,’” Faye said. “The other three would sit around and watch TV, but this one is the athlete. Why him of all my kids? But it’s interesting because now that we’ve been on this journey for a few years, he is the one with the most positive attitude. All of my kids have a strong faith, but he has extremely strong faith … he’s such an easy patient. He’s willing to work hard. Pushing him to do therapy has not been difficult. He doesn’t mind working hard when something is really tough physically. Honestly, I love being around him.”
Because of that, Mak was ready for the second March day that would change his life.
It came unexpectedly one sunny afternoon last year at Bobby Jones Golf Course. The Shepherd Center, which keeps all of its past patients on an email list, had sent a notice about an adaptive golf clinic conducted by the Georgia State Golf Association. Sick of traditional therapy and always game to try something new, Mak went to play golf – a sport he had little exposure to previously.
“When he rolled out onto the course, I said, ‘Wow, Mak, this is beautiful, what do you think?’” Faye remembers. “And his eyes were like saucers.”
Immediately, a tradition was born. He started taking private lessons and made a point of trying to get out to the course on a weekly basis. By playing golf, he would practice standing – with the help of strapping into a solo rider adaptive golf cart – for longer than he ever had before. Focusing on hitting a golf ball was a distraction in the best way possible. He grew stronger. It was one of the rare activities his family and friends could do alongside him.
Golf became a form of therapy without having to go to a hospital.
“When you see him hit a ball, it’s beautiful and it brings a smile to your face,” said Mak’s instructor, Orlando Rodriguez. “When he started, he was hitting the ball maybe 10 yards, rolling it off the tee, to now he is hitting it 40, 50 yards in the air no problem. Just to see his expression when he connects, that’s enough for me. It’s very gratifying.”
Mak’s recreation therapist Jenny DiLaura added that she has rarely seen a patient so driven to succeed despite some of the equipment challenges that come from his 6-foot-1 height.
“He is in it to win it,” DiLaura said. “He will give everything his all even if he’s had a failure. If you don’t have the right equipment or can’t get set up properly, which does happen sometimes when you first try something, it can be a failure. And we’ve had some challenges with Mak. He is a tall kid. At times, that can make it a little more difficult. He has some grip issues and with having a brain injury, he moves a little slower, but he gives it his all every single time.
“If you give him some time to answer the question, he’ll say, ‘Oh, let’s try it like this.’ He’s problem solving, he’s engaged.”
“I think in his mind, he had decided he wasn’t going to do a career in any kind of sports capacity because he’s in a wheelchair now, but being at the golf course just changed his world.” – Faye Yost
Anyone who has suffered from a serious disability or is close to someone struggling with one knows there is grieving. You are forced to process a new reality. The life you once had or thought you were going to have is no longer possible, at least in the way it was first imagined.
When Mak Yost learned how to play golf, he reassessed what he could accomplish.
Four years ago, prior to his strokes, he had decided to attend the University of Georgia as an exercise science major. Instead of going to school with all of his friends, Mak was forced to defer UGA, which would only allow a one-year deferral. Yost had also been accepted to Georgia Southern, which allowed a two-year deferral. That luckily came in handy. During the early stages of the pandemic, Faye discovered that Yost was still eligible to attend Georgia Southern as long as he took an online class by the fall of 2020. He has since taken one class per semester. Given his physical limitations, he resigned himself to majoring in computer science, a career he could do sitting down.
But then he fell in love with golf.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m changing my major back,’” Faye said. “He wanted to do something in the athletic arena. That was just his thing … I think in his mind, he had decided he wasn’t going to do a career in any kind of sports capacity because he’s in a wheelchair now, but being at the golf course just changed his world. He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can do something like this. This would be so cool.’
“Golf changed everything. It opened his eyes to a world of possibilities.”
Almost four years removed from his strokes, Mak continues to make meaningful strides. Although he was unable to join his friends on campus for their final semester of college, he is gaining independence by learning how to study for class and take quizzes without anyone else’s help. When he turned 22 two months ago, he was able to blow out his birthday candle for the first time since 2018.
It’s not all about golf. Mak has an incredibly strong support system with his parents, Faye and Mark, three siblings and a village of close friends and family. They have all sacrificed and found ways to include him in everything they can.
But golf certainly was a game-changer. It has breathed life and a sense of purpose, keeping him excited about what is to come.
The scary part to think about, and the reason why spreading the word about Mak’s story and other adaptive golf endeavors is so important, is that it’s generally hard to find if you aren’t looking for it. There are tons of budding programs throughout the country, but not everyone is aware of the possibilities and some may assume their loved one is not able to participate even though there are many variations of equipment, such as longer or shorter clubs and different molded grips, that make the game enjoyable.
“I don’t know how we would have found adaptive golf if not for Shepherd,” Faye said.
So, for those interested in learning more about adaptive golf, there is a growing list of resources available. Visiting the United States Adaptive Golf Alliance or Adaptive Golf Alliance are two great places to start, as well as inquiring with your local state golf association. You can also read more about Mak Yost’s story at his Caring Bridge page or his GoFundMe page.
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