A Day At a Time
Gabrielle Giffords' hope: Symphony cellist came back from brain injury to rideon
Jim Denton played an inspiring performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Messa di Requiem with the Houston Symphony Thursday night, an ability he no longer takes for granted.
Denton lives somewhat of a double life. As a section cellist in the orchestra, he has had the opportunity to perform a vast amount exceptional repertoire under a myriad of world-class conductors for numerous audience members. For an outsider looking in, work in the classical music industry seems refined, elegant, maybe even glamorous.
But he also had a love for motorcycles, and one of his prized possessions, aside from his gorgeous instrument, is a Harley-Davidson.
An accident while pursuing his second passion almost ended Denton's ability to practice his first — and his life.
Denton has been able to return to both playing and riding thanks to no small part to The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research (TIRR), where congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords will be transferring after her stay at Memorial Hermann's intensive care unit (which doctors are now saying could last a week as they deal with a fluid buildup in Giffords' brain). Like Giffords (who was shot in the head by a gunman determined to assassinate her), Denton suffered a potentially debilitating brain injury — after having first escaped death.
"The accident happened near Hamilton, Texas, near Highway 36," Denton says. "There was a city council man coming out of the drive-through of a liquor store and he failed to yield the right of way. I went to the shoulder but he also cut me off there and I went off the road.
"I am told by some of the witnesses that I drove a mile before toppling over, helping to slow down. That, most likely, saved my life."
Denton suffered extensive injuries and lost a large amount of blood. A lack of a trauma center nearby forced medical professionals to airlift him from an emergency clinic to Scott & White in Temple. After a two-week stay that left him somewhat stabilized, an ambulance transferred Denton to TIRR.
"They were driving quite fast, between 90-100 mph, while (I was) under full medical support," Denton recalls. "I had a great trauma team, but this was the ambulance ride from hell. Thankfully, my girlfriend drove a BMW and could keep up. I arrived in July of 2009 and was released a month later."
Denton's injuries were massive. He suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) which included a subarachnoid hemorrhage on the right frontal lobe and diffuse axonal injury — DAI is one of the most common and devastating types of TBI where the damage is found in a larger and more widespread area rather than localized. It can cause sufferers to go into a vegetative state.
"I landed on my right side," Denton says. "All the damage was on the right side, except my left lung. I had broken every clavicle and scapula bone and had developed a clot in my arm. I was in a tremendous amount of pain."
This was Denton's second time at TIRR. Back in the 1980s, while at student at Rice University, TIRR had helped him recover from a diagnosis of spinal meningitis. Although the hospital had changed dramatically after a subsequent merger with Memorial Hermann, he remembers receiving excellent care.
"All the memories came back. It was in the same location and the same building," Denton says.
He attributes his recovery to the focus on both the physical and neurological aspects of his condition.
"They deal with you both bodily and mentally while most hospitals are only concerned with you physically," Denton says. "At TIRR they are concerned greatly with mental rehabilitation. They would walk me down to physical therapy where I would do very simple things, child-like games to get some movement out of me.
"Then, I would go for neuropsychological testing, where they ask you a series of questions. I still have trouble sometimes with my vocabulary."
Denton warmly remembers Dr. Jerome Caroselli, neuropsychologist and clinical psychologist. At TIRR, Caroselli helped Denton recover immensely, especially when Denton had to return 12 days after being discharged to treat a fast growing lung empyema, a collection of pus between the lung and the inside of the chest, directly related to the trauma. It had to be treated with a thoracotomy, a surgery to get access to the lungs, which has an average 15-month recovery.
Denton and Caroselli were on a first name basis by the end of his stay.
"I continue to have outpatient procedures and am very thankful for my team of doctors at TIRR," Denton says. "But also, my Symphony family was extremely good to me. They came to the hospital, visited me often and kept up with my recovery progress.
"When I was able, I would attend the concerts and experience the Houston Symphony from the other side. I realized what a magnificent group the city has. I was able to return in April 2010 and declared full-time a month later."
Now, Denton spends some of his time teaching a class at the Memorial Hermann Prevention and Recovery Center. "I teach how to live a day at a time, drawing from my past experiences. And yesterday, I started coaching chamber music at the High School for Visual and Performing Arts," he says.
Incidentally, Giffords is also a motorcycle rider. Denton feels like they have something in common.
"She is in good hands," he says.