Nine years ago, at age 7, T.J. Floyd lost his independence just as he was discovering it. His parents, Heather and Bo, lost the child they knew — and all the dreams and aspirations they had for him. But out of tragedy, they found a purpose. And they have new dreams and aspirations for their son.
The Floyds’ lives changed in a split second in April 2010 when T.J. flipped over the handlebars of his bike and landed very hard on the pavement. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
His siblings couldn’t rouse him and ran to get their parents. They found him unresponsive and called 911. He was rushed to Norton Children’s Hospital.
“We were put in a room alone off the emergency department and chaplains came to talk to us,” Heather said. “It was terrifying.”
At the same time his parents were learning that T.J. may not survive, he was being rushed into surgery to remove bleeding on his brain and repair a fractured skull. The left side of his brain was severely damaged.
But T.J. did survive.
A smile ends the darkness and starts a purpose
He spent 63 days in the hospital and endured three brain surgeries. Now, nine years and nine surgeries later, the hospital stays and therapy visits are well into the thousands.
“The first years he was like an infant,” Heather said. “He had a feeding tube, was incontinent, and his speech, language, memory and ability to walk were gone.”
Those were dark days for Heather. Her world was turned upside down.
“I felt very alone, hopeless and overwhelmed. And then one day I saw T.J. smile,” Heather said. “He was happy. He was laughing.”
T.J.’s laugh pulled Heather out of depression. Inspired to connect with others facing the same challenges, she started an online support group for families affected by traumatic brain injuries. Today she runs two Facebook groups with more than 40,000 members across the world.
‘Protecting children from brain injury one helmet at a time’
Heather also started working with state legislators to pass a bill that would raise awareness about the need for children to wear helmets. She took on speaking engagements and learning events. News spread about a message she felt passionate to share: Kids need to wear helmets.
“If I can save one family from going through what we went through, if I can help kids understand they can still look ‘cool’ when wearing a helmet, I’m happy,” Heather said.
She established T.J.’s Warriors, a group with the mission of “protecting children from brain injury one helmet at a time.”
“We work with Nutcase, a brand making helmets kids want to wear,” Heather said. “More than 4,500 people in the U.S. acquire a brain injury every day. That needs to change.”
While legislation is not yet passed, Heather, motivated by her own warrior and his infectious laugh, soldiers on.
Improving his walking in a virtual environment
T.J. has improved far beyond anyone imagined after his initial prognosis. He no longer needs a feeding tube (in fact, he loves to eat!) and he is talking, using the bathroom on his own and walking. He has defied many odds, including that he would need to use a wheelchair. His progress is thanks in part to new gait technology funded by the Children’s Hospital Foundation at Norton Mobility Lab at Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital.
The lab has a massive projection screen and treadmill with overhead suspension capabilities. Wearable sensors and cameras track movements so physicians can assess progress and adjust therapies.
Teaming up with T.J.’s Warriors
The Children’s Hospital Foundation and T.J.’s Warriors have teamed up to help more kids wear helmets.
You can help by joining the T.J.’s Warriors team for the Splash ‘n’ Dash walk/run on Aug. 3 or by contributing to the group’s cause.
It’s much like a virtual reality experience. Patients can experience walking in a forest, riding on a boat or flying a kite.
“Because T.J.’s walking is unsteady, we have a great option in the mobility lab: a built-in safety harness along with the interactive video wall that keeps his attention,” said Laura K. Jacks, M.D., T.J.’s orthopedic specialist with Norton Children’s Orthopedics of Louisville. “T.J. is developing confidence in his gait as he strengthens muscles without fear of falling. The games he can play give him a way to compete against himself and see the progress he makes over time.
T.J. works with specially skilled physical therapist Natalie Renfrow, who helps T.J. translate his skills into real-world walking. She can suggest or develop safe exercises he can do at home to keep his interest and maintain his strength between visits.
For T.J., a teenager now, his parents hope one day he can live in an assisted living environment or maybe even on his own. With targeted therapy and an endless supply of laughter and hope, T.J. is proving that anything is possible.
To learn how you can support pediatric rehabilitation, visit HelpNortonChildrens.com.