The surgery was supposed to be routine. As routine as an open-heart surgery can be. But shortly after surgeons operated on 17-year-old TJ Denham to repair a coarctation, or narrowing, of the aorta, which had caused a heart murmur, the problems began. Initially, he had trouble opening his eyes and swallowing immediately after surgery. Then a few days later, his motor skills began disappearing. Doctors brought him back in for intubation and a tracheostomy, but his problems continued. Finally, after going into respiratory failure, TJ was airlifted to Mayo Clinic in Rochester where the Des Moines Register reports "he nearly died."
All of this happened during the spring of 2013. Since then, it's been a long, hard road for TJ and his family. And, as the Register reports, "just holding up his head" remains "a grueling task" for TJ. He's also still unable to control his eyes, swallow, or speak. Yet TJ's parents tell the paper that despite all these medical difficulties, their son remains "fully cognizant" while essentially "trapped in his own body."
Doctors remain "puzzled" by what caused TJ's post-surgery complications, but that hasn't stopped them from trying to turn things around for him. As the newspaper reports, TJ has learned to communicate with his care team, friends, and family through "foot taps and basic sign language." He also recently received a new tablet that can "speak out" the words and messages he types with the help of a therapist. He conveyed one such message to the Register reporter last week from his room at On With Life, the "brain and stroke rehabilitation center" in Ankeny, Iowa, where he's currently staying. The message: "Wow. It has been a crazy year. Nine months at Mayo Clinic, one month at home and almost five months at On With Life ... I am thankful for the support from family, friends, church, and school."
Even though they know they still have a long way to go before TJ can return home to Des Moines, Kelly Denham, TJ's mother, tells us the family's long, bumpy emotional journey has been made smoother, and more hopeful, thanks to the care TJ received during the nine months he was at Mayo. "Mayo Clinic is the reason our son is alive today," she says. "We never worried about him being taken care of at Mayo -- we could just be parents while we were there and leave his care to the experts." That was in large part due to the fact that “the doctors work as a team and care about their patients,” she says. “We felt like we were a part of the team and we felt that our concerns were listened to.”
You can read more of TJ's story here and find a video, which features an interview with Kelly Denham and also shows TJ’s progress, below.