When you’re the mom of three active sons, you become conditioned to look out for danger. From the time your kids are mobile, you can be holding a conversation with a friend or co-worker, but some part of your brain is on high alert—quietly and routinely scanning the surroundings for something hazardous that could harm your child. And so, when Colleen Drahuschak has to drive 4 hours, alone, from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., overcome with the knowledge that her 16-year-old son TJ is in the hospital—in surgery—after a traumatic car accident on the way to school, every nerve ending is firing, a pinball of sheer terror zigzagging through her whole body.
When Colleen gets to the hospital, her husband and her sons Mike, 18, and Jimmy, 14, meet her in the lobby and bring her back to see TJ. And what she sees when she gets to him is the physical embodiment of all the fears that have kept her up in the wee hours—a true nightmare come to life. Nearly all of TJ’s body is swollen, and there is a lot of blood. He is a tangle of tubes, and the only part of his body it appears Colleen can touch is his right arm. She tries to do that, but even his fingers are swollen. She is almost afraid to touch him because she worries she might hurt him, even though he is sedated.
TJ, the boy who just days before, was the starting cornerback for Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville, N.J., securing the first interception of his football career in his junior year, looks positively fragile, and Colleen’s heart clenches painfully in her chest at the sight of his condition.
But there are things she doesn’t yet know—miraculous things that will change her life for the better, even in these dire circumstances. She doesn’t yet know the extent to which her son will fight for his life. In the minutes, hours, days, and months to come, she’ll find out. She’ll discover it when he survives being resuscitated three times by the trauma team at Capital Health and endures 28 surgeries and procedures, including his spleen being removed along with a kidney and part of his liver, tendons being transferred, and bones being reset. She’ll see it when his athletic 150-pound frame has withered to 99 pounds, and he doesn’t want to eat or drink because he is physically and emotional wrecked. She will witness it when he’s faced with a scorching reality—no more football; a long, slow, and sometimes painful recovery; and a body left with a dozen angry scars from surgeries and tubes that helped keep him alive.
Colleen doesn’t know that her son is going to make it through that first night, which is an encouraging sign. She doesn’t know that the doctors, nurses, and staff at the Bristol-Myers Squibb Trauma Center at Capital Health Regional Medical Center are going to turn themselves inside out to keep her son alive and make her family as comfortable as humanly possibles. She doesn’t know that Notre Dame Principal Mary Elizabeth Ivins is going to become like family or that her community in Florence Township, N.J.—even people she hardly knows—are going to bind together on her family’s behalf, sending cards, flowers, meals, money, and prayer blankets.
But perhaps most significant of all, the piece of the puzzle Colleen will encounter during the tumultuous days and weeks to come—when her son will have to fight for his life—is her own strength. She will become his lifeline, helping him battle fear, depression, pain, self-pity, and loneliness, sometimes having to be firm and resolute when compassion is the easier choice. But Colleen is a mom; she’s TJ’s mom, and she’s about to discover that the boundaries of that role extend beyond what she ever knew.
Everything Changed in an Instant
TJ doesn’t remember the accident, or even where they were when it happened. It was October 29, and a friend was driving him to school when he lost control of his Ford Explorer on Route 129 and hit the curb, and they flipped over into oncoming traffic. Several cars crashed into the passenger side, where TJ was trapped, and the car briefly caught fire. TJ’s body was crushed with almost a dozen broken bones and several organs damaged beyond repair, leaving the teenager in critical condition.
“They said it took them 10 minutes to extricate me out of the car, and they took me right to Capital Health Regional Medical Center,” TJ says. “EMS said I was responding and everything. I guess I told them my dad’s phone number and name, but I don’t remember.”
TJ’s family and Principal Ivins were alerted right away that he was in an accident and was being rushed into surgery. He was under the care of Michael E. Kelly, DO, a fellowship-trained critical care and trauma surgeon who joined the United States Army Reserve Medical Corps and recently returned from Afghanistan. Early on, behind the scenes, TJ’s situation looked grim, he says. “When we got him into the CAT scan, his blood pressure was dangerously low, so we got him out of there and into surgery, and he had some of the worst abdominal injuries I’ve ever seen. His liver was broken in two. Organs that should have been in his stomach were in his chest,” Dr. Kelly says. “We told his father that he wasn’t likely to live through the day.”
Meanwhile, Colleen, who kept her phone off during her work training, only noticed during a break that she had more than a dozen calls and texts about TJ. With her 16-year-old son in critical condition back home, she drove the 4 hours to Trenton with white knuckles and a heavy heart. Her husband and two other sons—18-year-old, Mike, and 14-year-old, Jimmy—met her in the lobby and walked her to the trauma bay to see TJ. “You always think about the unimaginable, but no one ever really expects it to happen. But it did. And it was terrible,” Colleen says. “But you can push yourself in ways you never thought you could, emotionally and physically.”
Those first hours brought a fight for TJ’s life, which included resuscitating him three times, surgeries to remove and repair bleeding organs, and nearly 70 units of blood, with the medical staff doing everything in their power to keep TJ alive. “Everyone from the nursing staff to radiology and people in the blood bank who gave us cooler after cooler of blood—rallied around TJ to save his life. No one gave up on him, and he didn’t give up. We saw that, and it made us work harder,” Dr. Kelly says. “I’ve seen some pretty horrific things. But he had the worst injuries I’ve seen someone live through.”
But Colleen’s positivity was infectious and resolute. In fact, she asked loved ones and friends who came to visit TJ to avoid crying in his presence because she didn’t think the sadness would help him recover.
Despite the fact that TJ spent the week and a half sedated as the trauma team worked to stabilize his condition, Colleen says there were encouraging signs from her son. In one instance, his football coach came to visit TJ, and when he mentioned someone else was going to take his spot at cornerback for the game on Saturday, he shook his head no. “At another point, I said I was leaving to go in the waiting room, and he shook his head no. Maybe once, you think it’s just an involuntary reaction, but it was different times under different circumstances,” Colleen says. “I think he knew what was going on. He doesn’t remember, but I think he heard. I knew there was hope. I knew he was there. And I knew he was a fighter.”
Awake to a Different World
TJ regained consciousness about 10 days later, but he faced a long, uphill battle before he could even walk, much less leave the hospital or return to school. He woke up on a ventilator to a battered body—jaw wired shut, feeding tube in his stomach, ruptured diaphragm, and broken ribs, vertebrae, sacrum, pelvis, and limbs—and a new reality. “I remember waking up in the hospital and saying, What the heck happened? I was wondering if my life was ever going to be the same again, if I was ever going to walk, if I could play football again. Would I be able to run or play tennis, all that stuff?” TJ says.
Beyond treating his physical injuries, so many members of the medical staff—and even non-medical staff—tried to do whatever they could to make things a little better for TJ and his family during his 8-week stay. “When you can’t get out of your bed—it gets pretty bad after a while. TJ saw all his injuries, and he got pretty depressed,” Colleen says. “One of the nurses made arrangements with the doctors, physical therapy, and occupational therapy, and she got him in a wheelchair and moved him down to the lobby, just to give him a glimpse outside of his four walls. She gave up her lunch break, just to make him happy.”
TJ’s birthday marked a major milestone, both in his life and his recovery and rehabilitation. He turned 17 on December 22, and for the first time since the accident, he got up from his hospital bed and stood on the foot that could bear weight. “I think the staff at Capital Health probably celebrated his birthday more than we did,” Colleen says. “They decorated his room, and Trauma Program Manager Marian Moore brought a cake. Nurses bought him gifts. Everyone did what they could to get his spirits up.”
Overall, while TJ’s organs and bones were slowly healing, his emotional state was suffering, and even when he was physically able to eat, he mostly refused food. He lost more than 50 pounds, and at 99 pounds, Colleen became gravely concerned. “It might sound surprising, but the toughest parts of this whole thing for me came when he was able to eat but he wouldn’t. That should have been within his control, but I guess it wasn’t. That’s what scared me the most,” she remembers. “He didn’t eat for quite some time, and not regularly until about 12 weeks after the accident.”
That’s when Colleen had to steel her spine and help TJ find his own strength. While she wanted to smother him with love, she knew he needed a push to find his way past the pain, fear, and depression, and that’s what she gave him. “In this situation, sympathy wasn’t always the right thing. There were times for sympathy but there were also times to say, ‘Suck it up and get out of bed.’ That was one of the hardest things to do,” she says. “I didn’t want him to be in pain, but I sometimes had to say, this is going to hurt, but you have to do it anyway.”
The First Steps Back
TJ spent Christmas and New Year’s at Capital Health, working with physical and occupational therapists and his team of doctors and nurses to build his strength so he could return home and eventually to school. And finally, on February 12, after weeks of rehab during a stint at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, TJ went home. Five days after that, he received a hero’s welcome at school—the entire student body donning TJ TUFF T-shirts.
“I was nervous because I was just in a different state of mind and physical condition than before,” TJ says. “But I felt really welcomed. I missed seeing all my friends and being in school like a regular kid.”
Although he can’t play football and he currently needs crutches while his ankle heals from a tendon transfer, TJ has his goals sharply in sight in the short term and the long run. His weight is back up to 135 pounds, and TJ goes to PT twice a week and lifts weights in the football gym as often as he can after school. “By September, I hope to be running. Then within the next 6 months I want to jump rope, move side to side, stuff like that,” TJ says. “I’ll be a senior, and I don’t know where I want to go to school, but I now know what I want to do—I want to be a nurse anesthetist or an anesthesiologist. That was the person I saw the least in the hospital, but I just thought it was the coolest thing.”
Today, when you see TJ and Colleen together, it’s impossible to miss their connection—they look out for each other. When she tears up talking about the difficult moments of this ordeal, he instinctively rubs her leg. And as he makes his way up stairs on his crutches, she looks out for the hidden dangers and hazards that might derail him. But on the whole, the accident has changed one very important thing.
“We’ve become closer as a family. It has made us express how much we care about each other a lot more often,” Colleen says. “Now we tell each other, and we mean it.”
Facing death at 16 years old and fighting through months of long, painful days and nights recovering from critical injuries will change a person. A few weeks before school ended, TJ tweeted: “Through all of this I learned that life can end at any second, so cherish it. Live every moment you can to the fullest.” TJ understands how fleeting life can be because he experienced it first hand.
“I see certain things that I would probably have paid more attention to before, but I’m just not really worried about the little things anymore,” TJ says. “I’m just focused a lot more on the big picture.”
The piercing blue eyes and infectious grin that often stretch across his baby face can fool you, though. They can make you forget the physical scars that paint his torso and limbs and the invisible ones that left him emotionally tough.