Thomas John (TJ) Pemberton is a true outdoorsman…from the top of his bright orange hunters’ hat to the bottom of his prototype, mossy oak camouflage leg brace. All his life TJ has enjoyed outdoor activities and sports. But that passion was nearly crushed one dark, October night in 2002 when TJ was deer hunting in Southeastern Oklahoma with two fellow firefighters.
As he was driving his All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) back to camp, the lights went out just as the road curved to the right. Missing the turn, TJ and the ATV careened 442 feet down the mountainside. Luckily, his two buddies were trained paramedics and were able to assist in the rescue off the mountain. It took nearly ten hours to get TJ to a level-one trauma center in Oklahoma City.
TJ was in bad shape. He had a broken femur and clavicle, three broken ribs and three broken vertebrates. He bruised both lungs and his heart, suffered severe nerve damage to his back as well as a traumatic brain injury, which plagues him to this day with short-term memory loss. He needed an emergency operation on his right leg. TJ endured the pain and shock of his knee being drilled, while he was conscious, in order to place three screws and a titanium rod in his leg. As the day progressed, TJ’s condition worsened. The doctors didn’t think he would survive the night. Firemen stood guard at his door and the chaplain was called in to give TJ his last rights. Two days later, with his family standing vigil at his bedside, TJ awoke with a craving for cheeseburgers!
TJ was eventually sent home to lie on his back for six weeks. Once he was finally allowed to sit up, his buddies, sensing his depression, took TJ deer hunting. Sitting in a ground blind, TJ closed out bow-hunting season with a deer. TJ’s been on the move ever since.
At first TJ used a wheelchair but wasn’t satisfied. He tried a leg brace, but couldn’t walk unless he used crutches. And then, he found Hanger. His Hanger orthotist designed a leg brace for TJ which enabled him to walk with the assistance of only a cane. Today he can walk without any help. The brace gives him control of his right leg. The first of its kind orthotic device goes from his hip to his foot. The top portion is like a prosthesis socket and the rest of the brace is slit all the way down to his foot so it can wrap around his leg on titanium hinges.
With his unique leg brace TJ is able to pursue his love of archery. In 2005 TJ made the United States Paralympic World Archery team and placed 8th overall. He is currently living and training at the University of Central Oklahoma Paralympic Training Site, in hopes of representing the United States in archery for the 2008 Summer Paralympic games in Beijing. Rencently, TJ was the first disabled archer to compete in the World Fire and Police Games in Vancouver, Canada.
Always in the pursuit of outdoor happiness, TJ white water kayaks, rock climbs, still rides ATV’s, hunts and fishes. TJ also plans to climb four mountains in excess of 14,000 feet within the next year!
His advice to fellow patients: “Never stop trying. Never quit. Period.”