Open-wheel racing’s first paralyzed driver has his eyes set on IndyCar fame

Mazda Road to Indy, Pro Mazda, Pro Mazda commentary — By on June 23, 2014 10:11 am

With a lofty goal in place, Johnson was ready to start his road to recovery. But fate’s cruel hand wasn’t done dealing to him just yet. An unexpected circumstance added even more tribulations.

“On the ambulance ride back to the States (from the racetrack to Detroit) I was on a back board, and I stayed on a back board for the next couple of days,” Johnson remembers. “I ended up developing a pressure sore on my tailbone. The pressure sore ended up infecting the tail bone itself, and I had to go back to the hospital for another month. They did multiple surgeries on it trying to clean it up, and that ended being a year and a half recovery in itself.”

While most kids his age were still watching Saturday morning cartoons, Johnson found himself following an excruciating therapy regimen to stifle the infections that were growing in his body. This included a second pressure sore that had manifested on Johnson’s right hip. These pressure sores — the same type that killed famed actor Christopher Reeve — are notoriously difficult to heal.

“When it infected the bone, it started to eat all of the tissue around it,” Johnson says. “To clear out all of the infected tissue, they basically cut out all of the muscle. After surgeries I literally had a hole in the back of my tailbone the size of a small dinner plate. You could actually see my pelvis, and I was on a machine called a Wound V.A.C. that was sucking out all of the infected blood and tissue.

“That was the longest year of my life, especially when all of my friends were off racing and I’m stuck at home not able to do anything.”

No one would have begrudged Johnson for having a dour outlook on life at this point, and anyone hearing his story would probably have assumed that he never wanted to see a racetrack again. But that may be the most amazing part of his story: the one thing that had caused so much pain and heartbreak for Johnson was the only thing that brought him through it.

“I can’t say that I’ve ever had a bad attitude, but at 12 years old you don’t know what’s going on,” Johnson says. “I knew I couldn’t walk, but I didn’t really know what was going on. My dad was there every day at the hospital and at home. He forced me to do things on my own at home, and that made me really independent. At the time I hated him for it, but now I’m so glad that he did it because I’m not depending on anyone to do everything for me.

“The thing that really got me through, though, was racing. Even in the hospital, my dad and I were talking about what we could do, whether it was racing boats or go karts or even racing motorcycles again. Thinking about getting back to racing has helped me throughout my recovery.”

Johnson’s parents have also been intimately involved in trying to aid his recovery in any way possible, and his health has seen a slow but steady upturn since those first hard years.

A chance meeting during Johnson’s stay at the Detroit Children’s Hospital may also have played some role in his recovery.

“When I first got hurt in 2005 I met a doctor named Carlos Lima,” he says. “He was talking about a new surgery and told us to stay in touch.

“In September 2009 we went to Portugal and had a stem cell surgery done. Basically what they did was go through my left nasal passage up into my brain, which is where you make fresh new cells every day. They took cells from there and implanted them into my spinal cord where it was damaged. They closed everything up, and they were also able to repair some of the spinal cord itself.

“The surgery we had used adult stem cells. There is a lot of controversy out there about embryonic stem cells. We asked the doctor about that, and he said that adult stem cells just worked better. We couldn’t do the surgery here in the United States because of FDA regulations. The surgery cost like 500,000 euros, which is really cheap considering my back surgery alone cost over $2 million dollars. Before I had the surgery I had to go to psychologists to make sure that I was okay with what the results could be since there is a fine line between living and dying when the spinal cord is involved.”

There’s no miracle cure in this story as of 2014, but a combination of factors and plain hard work in the therapy room have allowed Johnson to make steady and marked progress on his recovery.

“I didn’t get things back right away, but it’s been slowly coming back,” Johnson says. “I don’t even know how much of it is coming back because of the stem cell surgery, though. The nervous system is so complex that you never know exactly what is going on. I think that some of it has come back from the surgery, some has come back from my racing, and some has come back just from time in general.

“It only took a half second for the accident to paralyze me, and it’s taken me nine years just to get a little bit back.

“That’s the thing with spinal cord injuries: no one person is the same. There’s a bunch of people I know with the same injury that I have. Some are walking now, and some are worse off than I am. It’s weird how the body works.”


NEXT PAGE: Continuing recovery and climbing back on the horse

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