EAGLE POINT — It was a simple backflip.
Dennen Adams had done dozens of them before while playing in the water.
There was simply no way of knowing an 11-month battle for his life would come next at only 16 years of age.
“The whole time Dennen kept asking, ‘Mom, am I dying? Mom, am I dying,’ because he didn’t know and nobody really had any clear answers,” recalls Shantelle Adams of her youngest born.
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It was the summer of 2016 and Adams had just wrapped up yet another basketball camp with his Eagle Point teammates, making for the perfect time for a family retreat before school resumed.
The family made its way to a camping spot at Willow Lake and began to enjoy all the things a hot August day offers in Oregon.
As the youngest boy in the troop, Dennen found fun in doing the simplest things: running around with his brothers, maybe hopping into their bass boat for some fishing or pulling off a few backflips on the edge of the lake.
But on one fateful somersault, Dennen happened to take some water up his nose. Not the worst thing that could happen, and certainly nothing to cause alarm.
Really, it happens all the time, and the high school junior-to-be didn’t even bother to bring it to anyone’s attention.
He woke up with a nagging headache the next morning, and was promptly directed to take some ibuprofen and make sure he wasn’t merely dehydrated by drinking plenty of water and Gatorade.
A highlight moment of heading out bass fishing proved to be nothing but more pain for Dennen, who had to lay down in the boat while older brothers Destin (21), Aaron (24) and Deric (26) manned their reels.
“He just couldn’t handle it out there, he just kept blowing his nose really hard,” says Shantelle. “He said he kept feeling like something was up there and the headache was just getting worse and worse.”
That led to a quick end to the camping trip, with the Adams family packing up its belongings and heading back home in hopes a different environment would benefit Dennen.
* * * *
Home was nice but not all that helpful for Dennen, who by this time was shaking in pain focused primarily on the left side of his head. All he knew for sure was this wasn’t normal, and he made sure his parents Shantelle and Dennis were as informed as they could be.
“You have to listen to your kids,” says Shantelle. “Dennen has never been one to complain anyways so that’s how I knew. When he was telling me something was wrong, I knew I had to believe him.”
An ensuing trip to his pediatric doctor left him with only a referral to seek further treatment at Asante Medical Center, where a spinal tap and CT scan didn’t offer much in the way of an answer but at least got him going on some antibiotics at home.
Four hours later, though, Dennen woke his mom with a stunning sight as a sizable bump had developed above his left eye. Back again at the hospital, Dennen’s left eye was now swollen shut and a collection of emergency room doctors found themselves flummoxed by what they were seeing.
Finally, a pediatric doctor new to the area from Texas had a lightbulb moment that may well have saved Dennen’s life. It was then that more scans and an MRI were taken of Dennen’s head, and then that the doctor calmly came into the Adams’ room and said to Shantelle, “You’ve got 15 minutes to pack your stuff, we’re flying you to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.”
That’s when the discovery was made that bacteria had gotten up into Dennen’s sinuses and were forming abscesses, one on the left orbital area, one on the left frontal sinus and another at 3 centimeters and growing just on top of the filmy layer that acts as a shell on the brain.
“That just hit me out of nowhere and was like a big shock,” Dennen, now 17, says of that news. “I just thought it was a normal headache and then I started swelling up and they said it was pretty serious. I was like, ‘I don’t know how because I was just swimming and doing the normal everyday things in the summer.’ It was just crazy.”
The only thing more shocking was the ability of Dennen’s basketball coach, Brent McConaghy, to make his way from Eagle Point to the airport just in time to see one of his players off for what he did not truly know.
“The hard part as a head coach is you go from the fact you’re saying I’m expecting these minutes from you at shooting guard to holy cow, now I need to re-prioritize not only our season but what I’m talking about with this young man,” says McConaghy. “At that point basketball meant nothing.”
Dennen was taken out of the ambulance and wheeled toward an awaiting airplane, and McConaghy's presence meant the world to him.
“It’s good to know that people actually care about you, even off the court like with my coach,” says Dennen. “It felt good and reassuring to know how much support I had.”
* * * *
Dennen and company certainly would need that support when they arrived on the campus of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.
“When we got up there it was kind of overwhelming,” Shantelle says with a sigh. “We were swarmed with white coats, tons of them.”
And, still, not really sure what was going on because, overall, it seemed to the Adams family that Dennen was fine other than the bumps on his face.
The medicine flowed, with more scans and more questions on the water in question that started this roller-coaster. Finally, an optio plastic surgeon decided to go in and remove the abscess on the orbit of the eye, cutting Dennen’s eyelid in half, removing his eyeball for access and then finally finding his target.
Unfortunately, too much time on antibiotics kept the doctors from discovering exactly what type of bacteria they were dealing with, leaving Dennen further hospitalized and increasingly antsy to get back to his teammates and school.
That’s when the Adams were made fully aware of their situation.
“They kind of protected us because I didn’t really know how serious it was,” says Shantelle, who had been staying in Dennen’s room while husband Dennis traveled back and forth from Southern Oregon each day. “Finally they had to pull me out and tell me, this is serious, four out of nine people die from this and your son is very ill. Then I was like, OK, we won’t be talking about school anymore, I don’t care.”
* * * *
Through it all, including two more surgeries to the left frontal sinus to clear out that abscess filled with the water-borne bacteria, Dennen remained upbeat.
“The kid’s unreal, I’m gonna tell you, because he has all this going on and he’s still shooting hoops,” says Shantelle. “They brought him in a basketball hoop and basketball in his room and he’s doing free throws from the bed, and then he would get up and try to do his pretend fancy stuff on the little kid basket. It was just really hard to keep him down even though he was very sick.”
That was the naivete of youth, it was Dennen being Dennen.
“I just had faith in God and knew that he’d get me through it,” he says simply. “I just hoped that everything would solve itself and I’d get better. I just kept a positive mind throughout. When they found the bacteria on my brain, that was the scariest part because that was the most serious, but I knew we could get through it.”
Multiple trips back and forth from his home to Doernbecher, the nagging pain of having a PICC line in his arm so his mom could give him all the medications she mixed three times a day, the question of when he would ever get a clean bill of healthy finally ended last July.
His three surgeries had taken care of two abscesses, although he was left with a slight dent on his forehead as a reminder after one abscess ate a hole in his facial bone. The abscess on his brain thankfully didn’t burst and appears to have dissipated with meropenem antibiotics.
“I feel lucky because they said there was a good chance I’d die, so I’m very glad I’m here,” adds Dennen. “It’s all good now — at least they think so.”
* * * *
To say that experience left a lasting impression on those involved would be an understatement.
“I never really got too down during the whole process,” says Dennen, “and I learned that’s a good trait to have to never get down during a situation, especially a severe situation like that.”
For Shantelle, who joins Dennen in saying the two became especially close during this process, she got a rare glimpse of a son she always knew was special but not to this degree.
“He has a great heart,” she says, choking back tears. “They kept telling us in the hospital, ‘Dennen you need to get up and walk around, you have to walk around.’ And you know he was exhausted and he just kept saying, ‘I don’t want to scare the little kids there that were sick.’ Because his eye was swollen shut and he looked deformed, he was afraid he would make them cry. That touched my heart.”
“His determination to get better and to get into school and play basketball was unreal,” adds Shantelle. “I think that a lot of people, not just kids but adults, too, would have been defeated with how many times we would go up there and he felt fine and they’d say, nope, we’re admitting you. They told him four out of nine people die from this and he was like, ‘Well guess what, I’m the other 55 percent.’ He stayed so positive and I think that’s what made him get through it.”
* * * *
The process essentially cost Dennen his junior season of basketball, and no one was more gung ho for this year’s season than the 5-foot-10 shooting guard.
“It probably means more to me than the other guys because I wasn’t able to play last year because of everything,” he says. “Now I’m finally out there as a senior and this is my last go-round, so it feels good to be out there playing again.”
And he’s played well for an Eagle Point team that has struggled to put wins together with McConaghy sidelined by his own physical ailment in a talent-rich Midwestern League. McConaghy experienced dizziness and passed out during the team’s fourth game and has been idle since.
The Eagles are 3-17 overall and 2-8 in MWL play entering Tuesday’s game at Ashland, with Adams averaging 10.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals in a team-best 25 minutes per game.
“The numbers kind of tell the story,” says EP interim head coach Micah Shibano. “He is our second-leading scorer and that’s nothing short of a miracle knowing that a few years ago he had a season-ending knee injury and last year with the thing with his brain. For him to come in and contribute like he has is remarkable, especially for all the rehab he’s had to put in to get to this point. It has been outstanding to watch.”
And that’s where Dennen finds himself in another dilemma, balancing his competitive spirit that wants to win each time out against a newfound understanding of what truly matters in life.
“The wins mean everything to me,” he says, shaking his head following a recent loss to Crater. “It’s why I’m out there. I’m trying to get us a win every night. But it also kind of doesn’t matter because you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and I’m lucky to be out there.”
“I don’t take anything for granted now,” adds Dennen. “You’ve got to live life in the moment and thank God for every day.”
— Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry