Grit and gratitude: Surgeon’s skills cut Marine to his core

Combat veteran. Medical miracle. Stay-at-home dad. It’s hard to know where to start.

But what’s clear is Tim Davenport’s storied life hasn’t ended.

Marine veteran Tim Davenport with his childrenIt didn’t end as he and faithful canine partners located IEDs during two tours in Iraq, saving the lives of fellow Marines, other troops and civilians alike. It didn’t end when the memories of bullets whizzing past his head and the chilling nickname Mortar Magnet flooded his mind.

And it didn’t end because of what caused the 36-inch scar amid the tattoos on his right arm that permanently connect Davenport’s past, present and future.

The Sullivan man’s story continues because of his wife and children and because Dr. Timothy Browne and a host of doctors, nurses and others acted quickly and skillfully. They saved Tim's arm—and his life—from necrotizing fasciitis, an aggressive infection that nearly did what terrorists couldn’t.

“I give Tim the credit,” Dr. Browne said, also spotlighting Dr. Sherfield Dawson and the Emergency Department team for their important roles. “We made the decision to try to save his arm to save his life. During several surgeries, we removed the infection. But Tim had to do the work after that.”

He did because he had to.

“If he had lost his arm, I’m not sure Tim would have been able to work through that,” Davenport’s wife Jennifer said. “Not being able to take care of himself in little ways would have pushed him over an edge.

“He’ll always have pain, but he can feed himself, bathe himself, tie his own shoes. Dr. Browne gave him his dignity.”

At the hospital

Tim Davenport's 36-inch scar surrounded by tattoosWhen she left for work on the day in January 2016 that changed everything, her husband wasn’t feeling well. Davenport thought he might have the flu.

“I got home from work, and his arm was three times the usual size. He had a massive fever, and he was in terrible pain,” she said.

“We went to the hospital right away. I didn’t give him an option.”

After being transferred to Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, Jennifer remembers hearing, “If he lives, he won’t have an arm.”

The next several hours were a blur. Davenport’s liver and kidneys were shutting down as the infection raged on.

“Dr. Browne told me his team was doing everything they could to save the nerve to Tim’s hand. I knew Tim would think, “What good is my arm if I can’t use it,’” she said.

Tim Davenport and his familyToday, Davenport laughs at some of the stories from his weeks in the hospital, especially one about the woman he married in 2012.

“They tell me I looked up at her and said, ‘You’re so pretty, but please don’t tell my wife I said that,’” he said.

Then his dark eyes fill with fat tears.

“She was so worried. She hardly ever left the hospital, let alone my bedside.”

Ink and endurance

The large tattoo on Davenport’s forearm does more than tout military might. It helped the surgical team line up his skin more precisely when they finally closed his gaping wound for the last time.

“Dr. Browne was adamant about saving my tattoos,” Davenport said, showing the taut scar between ink paw prints of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Quiet and deliberate, the fellowship-trained microsurgeon demurs.

“It wasn’t that hard to do. We wanted to show Tim we appreciate all he’s been through and how he shares his story with others,” Dr. Browne said.

Another set of tattoos shows part of why family means so much to Davenport. His parents, also Marines, died a few months apart in 2013 after 32 years of marriage.

Tattoos showing Tim Davenport's and his parents Marine ranks“My parents were my saving grace after I hung up my rifle,” he said.

Enduring so much could have hardened Davenport. It didn’t.

“He’s wonderful. Doting. They are his world,” Jennifer said about 10-year-old Aiden and 8-year-old Willow. “He does everything for them. He plays with them, takes care of them. They’re best friends.”

It’s clear they’re more than that.

“If not for my kids, I wouldn’t be alive today,” Davenport said. “I’m here. I have my arm. I have my family.”