In 2013, sixteen-year-old TJ Denham underwent surgery to repair a newly-diagnosed heart defect. During surgery, he acquired a brain injury that left him severely disabled.
Kelly Denham, TJ’s mom and advocate for victims of medical malpractice, says that TJ was born a typical boy, seemingly in perfect health. He was sensitive, smart, and kind-hearted. He loved paintballing and playing drums in his youth group worship band. TJ spoke with his church family the day before surgery saying, “I’m feeling good. I’m fine with it.” No one would have guessed that would be the last time they heard him speak.
Initially, upon waking from surgery, TJ was walking and talking but was unable to open his eyes well or swallow. During the next few days, the sixteen-year-old’s motor skills deteriorated rapidly, rendering him physically unable to open his mouth, hold up his head, or talk. After three respiratory failures, several more surgeries to correct problems from the heart surgery, and many months in the hospital, TJ went to a brain injury rehab facility where he spent eleven months.
Family and friends didn’t give up on TJ. After a long, hard road, he recovered some of his physical abilities, which eventually enabled him to race in a 5K with help from his sister, Whitney.
TJ’s eighteenth birthday was spent in the rehab facility. Because he loved listening to music and dancing, his birthday wish was to have a dance party.
After spending over a year and a half in hospitals and care facilities, TJ was finally able to go home where his parents cared for him. After settling in to his new normal at home, he signed to his parents that he wanted to go back to school and finish his senior year. He communicated with his teachers through sign language, a foot-tapping system, and a communication device. When asked if he found it frustrating to communicate this way, TJ tapped yes with his feet, but still kept going, full of hope and optimism for his future.
Of going out in public, he said, “I want to say to everyone, if you see me out in public with my mom, sadly, don’t stare. Just come over and say hi, and ask my mom anything you want.”
“I’m so, so proud of him,” said Kelly. “It’s been a long road, and he’s been a trooper. He keeps going, and as long as he keeps going, we’ll keep going.”
TJ narrated his experience in an eight-page short story titled It’s a Slippery Slope which took him two months to write, finger-spelling each of the letters to his mother. He described respiratory failure as “feels like having an asthma attack times five—I felt like I was about to die.” And quoted a Bible verse, writing, “In the Bible Jeremiah 29:11 says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” That Bible verse has now been inscribed on the back of his headstone, as TJ died from respiratory failure a year after graduating from high school.
His favorite subject was science, and he planned to be a neurologist, saying: “I am still 100 percent sure that God loves me and has a plan for my life, and I still plan to pursue my dreams of becoming a doctor no matter how difficult.”
While that dream can now never come true, Kelly hopes that TJ’s experience, as well as that of his family and friends, will inspire readers. Kelly says, “Even in suffering, God is still good and beautiful things come out of suffering. Love is deeper and stronger. God’s presence is closer. Faith grows and miracles happen when we are at the end of our rope. There is much despair in the world, and I want others to know that in Christ there is always hope. This life is not all there is. In Christ there is a better life yet to come.”
During TJ’s illness, Kelly felt the Lord leading her to write a book about their experience. However, she put the idea on hold during the years they cared for TJ at home. With Trapped Within now finished, Kelly has become an advocate for families and victims of medical malpractice, fighting so that, even though her family’s case is now settled, other families will hopefully never have to endure the same difficulties her family encountered.