BY VAL SCHOGER; PHOTOS BY SONJA REVELLS
“It was not my time to go… I have a life to live.” Despite the serious topic, a huge grin brightens James “Jimmy Jam” Durham’s face when he recounts details about his accident and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). He talks fast and with quick wit and adds a good dose of humor to his description of the months of rehabilitation and life with a brain injury.
A big dent in his lower leg, more deep than wide, is the only visible scar from the accident. This is where his motorbike’s gear shifter punctured his leg. With a laugh, he adds that if he props his leg up just right, the deep void makes a perfect salsa dish.
At age 23, the accident drastically changed James’ life. It left him blind in his left eye, without a spleen, pins in one leg, and bolts in his skull. There is a constant risk of recurring seizures. He will have to take medications for the rest of his life . He aptly calls it an “invisible disability.” TBI survivors are at a risk of organ failure, dementia and, with balancing and processing problems, they are at high risk for incurring another TBI.
James grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and spent summers with his parents and two younger siblings in their second home in Panama City Beach. And Panama City Beach is where the family retreated to after spending months in hospitals. “Being in Dallas is like watching 10 TVs at once . It is too much stimulation. Panama City Beach offers a slower pace and, in our neighborhood, everyone knows James and watches out for him,” says his father, “JB” Durham.
On September 22, 2011, James was riding his motorcycle home after work. He had just moved to San Antonio to fill a position in the family business. He was two miles away from his new home. His bike, a customized pearl-white Yamaha R600 should have been highly visible. He noticed a mid-size SUV in the left-hand turn lane from the oncoming traffic and swerved to the far right lane. The last thing he remembers is seeing the passenger, driver, and brand of the vehicle before being catapulted into the air.
James’ helmet flew yards away when his body smashed into a light pole. There was a lot of blood. Other drivers stopped immediately and he was life-flighted to San Antonio’s University Hospital.
His parents Liz and JB believe it was more than a coincidence that a friend and James’s co-workers were at the intersection at the time of the accident and were able to get to James immediately. Within minutes after the accident his parents received a phone call to let them know that James had been critically injured. They were in Dallas at the time and instantly dropped everything and drove to San Antonio.
James’ coworkers went to University Hospital with his wallet, phone, and helmet but were not able to get any information about his status. James was a ‘John Doe’ in the ER . HIPAA laws forbid hospital staff to give out patient information. His mother Liz was persistent and got one of the nurses to admit that one of the new patients had “Jimmy Jam” tattooed along the entire side of his torso. Once in contact with the family, the hospital continued communicating with them throughout their almost seven hour drive.
When they arrived at the hospital that night, they almost could not recognize their son. He was in a coma, on a respirator and machines, had a neck brace, and his entire face and body were swollen. When describing James’ condition, the neurosurgeon in charge did not leave much hope. They were told that even if he woke up from the coma, he would most likely not recognize them and would not be able to understand them or communicate. James’ father recalls “They were very matter-of-fact, telling us that he would not make it.”
In the meantime, the entire family was mobilized. James’ younger siblings, Claire and Robert, arrived. His grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and many friends came as well. Many moved to San Antonio in the weeks to come.
“The neurosurgeon told us that everything was in God’s hands now and that we should pray,” recalls Liz Durham. “We had to deal with it. We had to accept it. We had no other choice. It is almost like an out-of-body experience, not being able to do anything but pray. We have a very tight network of family and friends and we experienced the power of prayer. It was like a hurricane. It started spinning and growing. We always believed that there are no coincidences in life. We have really seen miracles unfold. There is no other way to explain it . We had friends who had lost children. They were our role models by thinking of how they cope every day. James was still here . Their strength gave us strength. We were encouraged.”
Twenty-four hours after the accident, there were first good signs. James opened his eyes, if even just for a few seconds. In the following days he would drift in and out of consciousness but would show definite response to his surroundings. His eyes would move and he would react when he heard voices in the room.
James’ father remembers, “His siblings were a big part of James’ recovery. All of us did shifts of four, eight or ten hours so that we could be there and when he woke up he would not be alone.” Claire and Robert insisted that James would not be alone. The three were always very close. One of his family members was with him at all times, from day one. They sat in on therapy sessions and supported James every minute. Liz recalls “I remember every second and every moment and every word spoken.”
Every day brought challenges. A part of James’ skull had to be removed when the intracranial pressure and swelling would not go down. Months later, the same part of his skull would be replaced and today the bone has healed.
After five weeks of prayer during his coma, after surviving many critical conditions and several procedures, and receiving around the clock care, James simply woke up. He was transferred to one of the best rehabilitation facilities in the country, an acute rehabilitation hospital specializing in brain and spine injuries – TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston where he would excel every day.
James’ father explains. “Very few families have the resources, not only financially but emotionally and physically, to be able to be there 24 hours a day, however many days it takes. We recognize the resources and benefits that we were blessed with and we ache for those survivors who have to go through this alone. Some patients were by themselves. TIRR is one of the best hospitals in the world for TBI survivors, but their relatives might not have the possibility to be there. That James had been given a bed at TIRR was a miracle in itself.”
James fared much better than others and his fast recovery is giving other survivors hope. After TIRR came outpatient therapy at the Centre for NeuroSkills in Dallas. In the six months he spent there, James, with his positive “One Love” attitude, would make an impact on the therapeutic methods, the therapists, and the other survivors . He could communicate with other survivors and motivate them to be calm, patient, and positive. He states “Many of the TBI survivors get agitated and frustrated with people. They really just want to be normal and not be labeled ’The person with the brain injury’ when they walk into a room . I want to fight the perception that people feel they are not normal.” In summer of 2013 James returned to TIRR to work with TBI patients and families, showing them hope in person. In June 2015, TIRR is recognizing James’ recovery and desire to use his experience to help others by inducting him into their Wall of Hope – where profiles of survivors and their stories line the hospital’s main hall.
According to a report by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1.7 million people sustain a TBI annually. Of them, 52,000 die, 275,000 are hospitalized, and 1.365 million, nearly 80% are treated and released from an emergency department.
When James thinks back, he has no negative thoughts. He is just “happy.” His family confirms that he has always been happy and caring but the injury gave him a new direction and now his happiness and positivity are multiplied by one million.
“One Love” was a message he shared throughout his life with friends and family and they would jokingly call him a hippie. But it was a way of life for him. Today, “One Love” is his life motto and the message of positivity and love is a testimony not just for other TBI survivors but for everyone.
Grateful for every day, James wants to end the silence about TBIs and help other survivors deal with the aftermath. “I just want to help others like they helped me. Negativity is poison.”
In one way, the incident gave him direction and focus. After taking a college class at the end of therapy and an online class during his time in Panama City Beach, James decided to enroll in classes at Gulf Coast State College. A year later, he graduated with an Associate of Arts degree and delivered the commencement speech at GCSC graduation. He then moved on to study professional communication and psychology at Florida State University in Panama City. He has never missed a class at either campus.
He created a website to tell his story and help others understand TBI. His entire story can be found at http://www.tbionelove.com/
In his spare time, James volunteers with Second Chance of Northwest Florida, a nonprofit organization located in downtown Panama City that is helping TBI survivors. James plans on working with the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas in the near future. He is motivating others to be positive and is living proof that anything is possible. “I want to keep the message going. I know the truth about Heaven. It changes everything.”
His life has changed and he is looking at things with new focus. He is more spiritual than he used to be and he keeps praying. “Live is like driving in a car. I look in the rear view mirror frequently but keep my eye (lol) focused on the road in front of me.”
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