It was 10 years ago in July that Jenn Barksdale had one of the most painful and most life-changing surgeries. When she was just 16, two metal rods and 10 three-inch screws were inserted into her spine to help with her kyphosis and mild scoliosis. It took Jenn a year to fully recover, but by no means was this going to hold her down. Actually, it seems that because of this surgery, she’s now challenged to not only give back, but also discover every inch of the world. Jenn recently sat down with 303 to talk about her intense journey, the impact of Children’s Hospital on her and her family’s lives, and the crazy adventure she went on to celebrate that anniversary.
303: Tell us about how this journey started.
Jenn Barksdale: I started coming to Children’s Hospital 14 years ago once they found [the kyphosis and scoliosis] and diagnosed it correctly. My parents went online, like any good parent would, and researched doctors, where to go, and that kind of thing. They found out one of the best doctors, Dr. Chang, is located here in Denver, so they were able to get a hold of his office. I had to come here several times every year. Once it became obvious that I had to have surgery, I was like, ‘ok, I don’t need my organs being crushed, those are kind of important.’ They needed to wait until I was 16 because that was when my bones were most likely to be already grown.
303: What was the surgery like?
JB: It was nine to ten hours or something like that. I’m fused posteriorly and anteriorly in the front and back. Dr. Chang had a new method when I went in for surgery—he was actually able to go in through my side, so they went through my right side, collapsed my lung, and opened up my rib cage so they didn’t have to go through my chest and break my chest. So that was a huge improvement to what they used to do. But I have a huge scar running from my neck to my very lower back.
JB: I was in the ICU for a while, and they had all these gadgets attached to me. I had a ventilator to breathe for me, so basically when I got taken off of that, I say that I had to learn how to breathe on my own. I also had to learn how to walk again and stand. I grew 3” from my surgery, so you’re whole balance is thrown off. I felt like I was putting on a pair of permanent high heels. So that was very interesting. But I was in the hospital for a couple of weeks, but it took about a year to recover.
303: You had your surgery and pre- and post-ops at Children’s Hospital. How was that different than an adult hospital?
JB: I also had facial reconstruction surgery because I broke my jaw when I was 3, so the whole side of my face didn’t grow. Comparing Children’s Hospital to when I had my facial surgery at an adult hospital…they are not even comparable on the level of the treatment they give you. At Children’s, they let your family come in to the pre-surgery area and they allow you to have your family with you until you’re wheeled into surgery. That was something that was really neat.
And my younger brother, it was really hard for him. We had those talks about there always being a certain chance you could die during the surgery, and there’s a certain chance you could come out paralyzed, and they were so amazing to walk through and explain to us in wording that we could understand. For me, I was like you’re going to put medal in me? But they have so many amazing people and nurses.
303: What is your current relationship like with the Children’s Hospital?
JB: I always knew I wanted to come back in some way, shape, or form to come and work for them, volunteer, do anything I could. I first moved here on a whim [from Nebraska], and so I started volunteering. Then after about four months of volunteering, I got my job in the HR department. Now I’m a part of the YPC group and then I also do the Hospital Sports Program where we take disabled kids to the mountains and teach them how to ski and stuff. All in all, we definitely are a great group of people who come together for a great cause, wanting to just help everybody out.
303: So how is life going for you right now?
JB: This was my 10-year anniversary in July, so I celebrated by going with one of my best friends to Africa for three weeks. It’s something I never thought I was going to be able to do. When you’re going through that surgery and the recovery, I didn’t think I would ever be able to do something like that. But nothing’s holding me back. I can do everything I want.
303: Why Africa?
JB: As a child, I’ve been obsessed with great white sharks. South Africa is one of the only places where you can see great whites and you can dive in the water with them, so I went diving with great white sharks. It was so much fun. You could see them jump out of the water. I did that, I went on a safari, got chased by wild elephants. We did a lot of crazy things, because it was kind of like a bucket list. I jumped into devil’s pool and everyone was like, you’re crazy. But you know what, everything I’ve been through, this is the least of my worries.
303: From the outside looking in, it seems like after having such an intense surgery you would want to be extra careful…
JB: I had to have my surgery basically when I was 15, and I was 16 when I came out of this. I saw a lot of people that were kind of caged up and didn’t know what to do. Even some of the people that I met through surgery support groups, they’re still very careful and I guess I just didn’t want to be that. I’m still very adventurous. I love living life. And living life to me is just going on adventures. I want to see the world.
303: Where will you go next?
JB: Next year I’m thinking about going and diving the Antarctic. I don’t want to hold back and I don’t want to miss anything. There are so many things to see, that I’ve made my checklist and I’m going to start going through it. It’s like, if you die tomorrow, have you done something that you can really say that everything you’re here for right now has been worth it? I can say that. And I’ve had multiple trips that I can now say that.
303: What would you say to someone who’s dealing with something similar to what you’ve gone through?
JB: …Always have a positive outlook. Even though I was going through all of this, for me personally I just thought I had to be positive for [my family]. No matter how hard it is you just know you have such an amazing support group from the hospital, from the staff. Your family is a huge thing, but also reaching out to your friends is important. The biggest thing is to know you’re not going through it alone. Our volunteer office provides anything from toothpaste to toys. We have a teen lounge that has computers and a pool table. We have a Pet Prescription Program that comes around and brings dogs to you. That was one of the things that I remember in my kind of drug-induced state but they brought in a dog and it was so nice.
303: Donate2Date is just around the corner. What is your role at the event?
JB: All of us are just volunteering at the event, so we’ll be running around in our heels and flapper dresses and Zoot suits. But everything we raise goes straight back to the hospital.
303: How important is this event to you?
JB: We really want to bring awareness that you can go out and have fun, buy a date, and have a good time. Even if you’re a couple you can come and bid on silent auction items. We have a few stories that we’ll be telling and some videos of kiddos that have gone through some surgeries. Our goal is to broaden the outreach to the community.
“I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” Jenn Barksdale
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Lindsay is a California native who loves leather bags, killer heels and a bright shade of long-lasting lipstick. She’s always on the lookout for a great guy in skinny jeans, but puts her independence and writing first, traveling to some of the best hotspots in Denver and all over the world looking for a good lede.