It’s a cyclist’s nightmare, to do what Ted Denning did. You’re riding down a narrow two-lane road much too fast, and when the pavement bends to the right you can’t hold the curve, and your momentum carries you toward the other lane. If you’re lucky, there’s nothing coming from the other direction. If you’re unlucky, as Denning was, you throw on the brakes and skid into the front end of a Dodge Dakota. But he remembers nothing of what happened. He can only go from what witnesses have told him.
Brett Woods, then a WCU development officer, was among those witnesses. “Ted had just passed me as we were heading down. I remember thinking he was taking the upcoming hairpin curve a bit fast. Next thing I know, his bike begins to slide, all the way into the next lane at about the same time a pickup truck is rounding the bend. The truck hits Ted as he rolls under its front wheel, and it came to a rest with Ted pinned underneath. I remember thinking, there is no way anyone could survive what I just saw,” said Woods, now at the University of South Florida.
Born in Atlanta and raised in Charlotte, Denning was already in love with road cycling when he began his studies at WCU in fall 2005, and he quickly immersed himself in the Cullowhee cycling culture. His academic life as a sport management major, however, wasn’t nearly as fulfilling. His first two years at WCU were marred by academic probation and suspension, and Denning reflects that his life then had “no direction, and no sense to find that direction.”
Over the last weekend in July 2007, Denning was a cyclist riding high. Teaming with friends, he participated in a benefit cycling event in Charlotte and helped raise more than $1,000 for cancer research and treatment, riding 150 miles over a 24-hour period. Nine days later, Denning was taking part in the local cycling community’s Tuesday night Sylva-to-Balsam group ride, and the cyclists were on a side road near Balsam. “I was pushing to catch riders who were more experienced and faster than I was,” he said. He skidded into the path of the pickup truck, took the impact on the left side of his body and was instantly knocked unconscious.
He was airlifted to Mission Hospital in Asheville and admitted immediately into the neuro-intensive care unit. Denning’s inventory of injuries included a broken left forearm, fractured pelvis, multiple broken ribs and two collapsed lungs, but doctors were most concerned about his traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for 10 days. After three weeks in Mission Hospital, with his parents by his side and a steady stream of friends and supporters coming through to visit, Denning was transferred to the Shepherd Center rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. “Rehab helped me relearn essential everyday tasks such as walking, communication, balance and other abilities that were taught to me growing up, but were no longer connecting in my brain,” he said.
Denning remained a patient at the Shepherd Center for about a month. “My therapists couldn’t get me back to walking until my pelvis had been cleared to bear the weight,” he said. “Once I began walking again, I couldn’t wait to be back on a bike saddle. Finally my therapists allowed me to try an exercise bike, as long as I had no pain or discomfort. That was probably the greatest ride of my life.”
Denning was released from the Shepherd Center on Oct. 1, 2007, but he continued to receive therapy at Shepherd Pathways, the center’s outpatient facility, until early January 2008. “Toward the end of my therapy, I realized how lucky I was, and I felt the need to ‘pay it forward’ to others who were in situations like the one I had gone through,” he said. Denning began volunteering with the Shepherd Center’s locomotor therapy program, a part of the spinal cord injury unit, helping patients learn to walk again.
Denning spent most of 2008 volunteering at the Shepherd Center, and he also began the move toward resuming his studies at WCU by taking two summer classes at a local community college. He got good grades in those courses, and in fall 2008, he took on a full 12-hour course load at the community college. “I continued my successful grades through this full semester and was ready to return to WCU,” he said.
Seventeen months after the accident, Denning was a student again in Cullowhee. “When I started back up, I wanted to change my major to recreational therapy after experiencing how helpful it can be during my recovery,” he said. Now, Denning has two more semesters of classes and a one-semester internship to complete before he receives his bachelor’s degree in his new major. With much-improved grades, he has a goal of returning to Atlanta to be part of the therapist team at the Shepherd Center. “I am eager to begin working as a recreational therapist to help people recover from their own life-changing injuries,” he said.
In the weeks and months following his accident, when it became clear that Denning would survive, friends and family worried about how his brain injury would affect him in the long term. Denning’s memory did not return fully until two months after the incident, and his last preaccident memory continues to be from nine days before the crash. Denning said the one aspect of the incident he regrets the most is the uncertainty that friends and family went through as they wondered “how much of Ted would still be around” after the accident.
“I like to think I have fully recovered, and that I’ve gone far beyond where I was before,” Denning said. “I’ve been able to turn my life completely around, and I’ve found ways to open new doors for myself. I’m very grateful for having the experience as part of my life. I get to wake up each morning and just be happy for a new day.”
Armed with his newfound desire to help others and reach academic goals, Denning still enjoys his same passion for cycling. He was back on a bike seven months after sustaining his injuries. He has now cycled past the scene of his accident many times while participating in the Tuesday night group ride to Balsam. “I don’t feel any anxiety or fear,” he said. “I am as excited to ride as I have ever been.”