Mark Story

Mark Story: Dunbar runner stronger than ever after brush with death

After  battling Crohn's disease for most of 2010 and seeing his weight fall to 103 pounds, Dunbar's Bart Denham is back in competitive running form and hopes 
to qualify for the state track meet.
After battling Crohn's disease for most of 2010 and seeing his weight fall to 103 pounds, Dunbar's Bart Denham is back in competitive running form and hopes to qualify for the state track meet. ©2012 Herald-Leader

On the day the doctors finally released a weak and wobbly Bart Denham from the hospital, the Paul Laurence Dunbar track standout no longer could avoid the one thing he feared most.

A mirror.

When his unexpected medical ordeal began in January 2010, Bart was one of the promising middle-distance runners in Lexington, a 6-foot-3, 170-pound high school sophomore with a relentless passion for running.

But after a diagnosis of Crohn's disease, two surgeries — one that left an enormous surgical scar down the length of his stomach because of an incision that would not heal — and a battle with infection, Bart was leaving the hospital in the summer before his junior year having shriveled to 103 pounds.

The runner had set a personal best running at 800 meters for Dunbar only months before. Now, he was so weak he could barely walk under his own power.

Nothing that happened to Bart during his personal nightmare, however, hit as hard as what he saw that day when he looked in the mirror.

"The mental picture I had of what I thought I looked like was bad," Bart says now. "But when I saw myself in the mirror — I had like a mixture of white and black hair because I wasn't getting enough nutrients; I was ridiculously skinny with this huge bleeding mess down my stomach — it was worse than anything I thought. I went into shock."

Then he cried.

Yet even on the day when the mirror showed the cruel effect of all he had been through, Bart refused to let go of his dream.

"Even when I couldn't walk, I believed I would run again for Dunbar," he says. "I just knew it."

For Bart Denham, a medical ordeal that would have his parents fearing for his life began in January 2010. During a family vacation to Clearwater, Fla., Bart started vomiting and experiencing sharp pains in his stomach.

When the family got home to Lexington, David and Pam Denham insisted Bart see a doctor. Initially, the thought was Bart might be suffering from appendicitis.

After he was admitted to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital, a CT scan showed an inflamed abscess was causing a blockage in an intestine. "They told me it was probably Crohn's disease," Bart said. "I was like 'What is Crohn's disease?"

According to the Mayo Clinic Web site, Crohn's disease is a bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and malnutrition. Although Crohn's disease can cause life-threatening symptoms and there is no known cure, therapies can greatly reduce the effect of Crohn's and bring about long-term remission.

After Bart was diagnosed, he was in and out of the hospital at least five times during his sophomore track season. Once he spent two weeks on "bowel rest," meaning no solid food. His mom said he was taking at least 15 pills a day of various medications. Bart figures he lost some 20 pounds, going from about 170 to 150.

Somehow, he kept running for Dunbar.

"The doctors told me there was no way I could hurt myself more by running," Bart says. "I actually had a better season than I could have ever dreamed of. I'd get sick, they'd put me in the hospital and give me IV steroids and put me on bowel rest, then they'd send me back out. At one point, I ran the fastest time on our team (in the 800) and the fastest time in our region. It was crazy."

From a religious family, Bart was at a Young Life Christian Camp in rural Minnesota in June 2010 when he was overcome with the need to throw up. A camp counselor piled him into a pickup to drive him to the hospital. "That camp was way out in the wilderness," Bart says. "I was puking into a trash can the whole way. It was a rough trip."

After about a week in a Minnesota hospital, Bart was flown back to Kentucky in a medical-transport plane.

On June 28, 2010, Dr. Thomas H. Greenlee and a surgical team at St. Joseph East hospital performed a laparoscopic procedure designed to remove blockages and diseased parts of Bart's intestine. "It was markedly infected and had very high-grade obstructions," Greenlee said.

The trials of Job look like cake compared to what Bart went through next.

He developed a bacterial infection (Clostridium difficile) that caused his platelet count to drop dangerously low. Other complications mounted, and Bart ended up in intensive care. "He was in intense pain," Pam Denham says.

Unable to have solid food, Bart's weight was in free fall.

On July 13, 2010, Bart underwent a second surgery. This time, Greenlee and his team operated the old- fashioned way. They found that Bart had developed bowel abrasions and adhesions in his intestines.

Watching a kid who had been emerging as a high school track and field standout only months earlier withering away in the hospital was jarring.

Josiah Hanna, a former teammate of Bart and something of his running mentor, showed up at the hospital one night with some other ex-Dunbar runners to see Bart. They were told he was sleeping.

"We were like, 'Well, we'll just come back tomorrow,'" Hanna said. "I guess when I realized how bad things were, his mom was kind of like, 'You better see him now.' You just had the feeling she wasn't sure there was going to be tomorrow."

That was definitely David Denham's worry. "I thought Bart was going to die," he said. "I was extremely upset, extremely nervous about the situation the whole time he was in the hospital. For so long, he just kept getting worse."

With a teenager's perspective, Bart remembers not being as scared about the risk of dying as he was anxious just to get back to high school normalcy.

During his lucid moments (painkillers provided him some crazy hallucinations), he pestered doctors and his parents about when he would be able to get back to running.

"At one point, my husband finally said to him, 'Bart, we're worried about your life right now. We could care less about your running,'" Pam Denham said.

Even after the second surgery, Bart's problems kept growing. His long surgical incision from the second operation became infected, and doctors applied a wound-vac machine to try to speed his healing.

On the first day he was supposed to be released from the hospital, Bart was discovered to have a fistula, an opening usually caused by pus forming at the surgical site.

A third surgery might have been required to repair that, except Bart was too weak. So the doctors sent him home with the hope he would heal naturally.

Bart had a pic line in his arm, an IV pole, a backpack for his wound-vac and a stoma bag attached to the fistula on his stomach.

Having seen himself in the mirror, Bart had no desire to let anyone outside his family see what he looked like.

"It's kind of sad how used to it, to being alone, I got," he says.

Bart says he never got angry at God even as his ordeal seemed unending. "Thinking back on it, I'm really surprised I didn't get mad at God," he says. "But for some reason, I always thought, 'He has a plan for me. For some reason, I don't know why, I just believed I could come out of this stronger."

At first when Bart came home, his parents took turns sleeping at night on the floor of his bedroom.

Yet as it turned out, the body of a previously well-conditioned, teenage distance runner has a stunning bounce-back capacity.

Slowly, Bart rebuilt his strength. One day in the fall of 2010, he went to the Dunbar campus and Hanna challenged Bart to run one lap (400 meters) around the school's track. "I did it," Bart says, "and I was exhausted."

After spending the first semester of his junior year in Fayette County Public Schools' home-bound program, Bart returned to Dunbar for the second semester in January 2011.

By this time, his weight had rebounded to the positive side of 160 and he had started to train again as a runner.

On Jan. 22, 2011, Bart returned to high school track competition. In the Wildcat Classic, an indoor meet at UK, Bart tried to run the 800 meters.

"I was ridiculously nervous," he says. "I was afraid I would embarrass myself. But I got out there, and at one point I was in second place. At that point, I knew, I was like 'all right, I can still do this.'"

According to the Web site, Bart finished that race seventh. Later that season, he set a new personal best in the 800 meters, 2:01.08.

This year, as a senior, Bart is building back his long- distance stamina and won the 1,600 meters (the mile) in the Fayette County Championships on Monday night.

"It's amazing this kid is running, period," says Dunbar track and field coach Killian Timoney. "But he's running really well. Never did I think this kid would come back. After what he's been through, what he's doing is remarkable."

David Denham says his son runs with more swagger since his medical challenges. "In his mind, I think he feels if he can get through all that and survive, he can push through any kind of pain as a runner," the elder Denham said.

Bart's remaining goal in high school track is to qualify as an individual for the state track meet for the first time (the regional track and field meet is Friday). Long-term, he has decided to attend Xavier University in Cincinnati to study business. The school's track and field program has invited him to walk on.

Having survived a life- threatening medical scare and made an improbable comeback to high school track, the thing he is happiest about is this:

When Bart Denham looks in the mirror now, he likes what he sees — a successful runner.