Twenty-Year-Old Gets Ready for Graduation After Suffering Brain Injury

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa  --  The hallways are a buzz at Valley High School as graduation nears.

Tj Denham can hardly wait. "I think it's been a long grind for him," said Special Education Teacher Garrett Hawkins.

Tj is 20 years old. He's finishing high school now after a long medical journey. Mom Kelly Denham said, "He went in for heart surgery and sustained a pretty severe brain injury."

The brain injury in April of 2013 devastated his body but left his mind intact. Hawkins said, "It's easy to forget or not to know cognitively he's a normal 20-year-old man. He has a great sense of humor. He's smart. He's just limited by his physical demeanor right now."

He's been back at Valley High School for a year and a half. He attends class in the afternoon with his peers. Then, he goes to the special education room to finish his assignments. He signs each letter of his answer for his teacher to write.

He can also communicate by tapping his feet up and down for yes and side to side for no. He told Channel 13 he was ready to be done with class by emphatically tapping his feet yes.

 

When asked if it is frustrating to try to communicate everything going on in his head, he also tapped his feet yes. It’s been hard for him to share his story, until now.

He recently worked on an essay called “It’s a Slippery Slope.” He wrote, "It all started the end of my junior year in high school. I asked Mom to take me to the doctor because my tailbone felt like it was being stabbed by a thousand pins."

It took two months for Tj to write the essay, with the help of his mom. He signed every letter to her. She said, "It just broke my heart. He was going through all of this emotionally, and he wasn't able to talk about it."

He had plenty to talk about in the eight-page essay. It's the first time people got a chance to hear what he went through from his perspective. He described respiratory failure, saying it "feels like having an asthma attack times five--I felt like I was about to die."

He even 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.'"

He went on to share his plans. "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.”

He'll take some time off after high school to try other treatments for his brain injury, but college is in his future.

"Well, it makes me cry because it's been so difficult, so difficult to get through this, and he still keeps pushing on and still keeps finishing. It's not easy and he keeps moving forward," said his mom.

For now, he’s enjoying these last few days of his senior year he almost didn’t get. Tj graduates Sunday, May 28th. His parents will get to walk him across the stage.