Johnson benefit scheduled for Saturday

Ellen Johnson pictured with Steve Witt and their children, Rebeca (9), Aydin (2) and Joanna (1).
Kristin Burdey

On Nov. 6, 2018 Ellen Johnson was headed to an appointment in Caledonia, Minn., completely unaware that her life was about to change. As she neared the stone church on Highway 76 outside of Houston, something happened. “One minute I’m on the road, and the next minute I’m going in the ditch,” the 2008 R-P graduate recalled.

Johnson could feel her 2001 Mercury Mountaineer wanting to tip, so her instinct was to try to correct it and take the ditch instead of rolling the vehicle. The next thing Johnson knew, she was flying through the air. “I felt a hard hit, then the vehicle bounced a couple of times. I pulled a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’,” she said with a laugh.

After getting her bearings, Johnson felt around and realized that her back hurt and her legs were numb, but it wasn’t until she moved to grab the door handle that she realized she was in unbearable pain and the use of her legs was completely gone. She reached for her phone, which was miraculously still in the center console, and called 911. “I feel like mom held it there for me,” Johnson smiled, crediting her mother Cindy Kleist, who passed away unexpectedly in 2013.

 “I remember that I answered all of their questions (on the phone) and that an ambulance was on the way,” Johnson recalled. Because her vehicle had landed on all four tires without sustaining body damage, initially the ambulance drove right past her. “If my phone hadn’t been there to call 911, no one would have known that I was there. It just looked like a deer hunter’s vehicle parked in the field.”

Johnson said she saw the ambulance finally stop, and then she blacked out, awakening moments later to an EMT pounding on the door to unlock it. “In order to put the collar on, they had to twist my body out of the driver’s seat. I was screaming bloody murder the whole time. The next thing I remember I was in the ambulance. It didn’t seem I was in there for very long before the helicopter came.”

Johnson was flown to Gundersen in La Crosse, Wis., where she underwent extensive testing. “They told me my back was broken,” said Johnson. “There was a chunk of my L1 vertebrae crushing my spinal cord, but they couldn’t yet tell how severe it was.” The days blurred together for Johnson, who spent a week in Critical Care before moving into rehabilitation for one month. “I am what is called a T-12 Complete,” Johnson explained. “I am a paraplegic, meaning anything from the waist down I can’t use.”

Obviously a diagnosis of that nature required some serious time to adjust to emotionally. Johnson also had to begin physical rehabilitation in order to regain some degree of control over her life. Along with her long-term partner Steve Witt, the couple’s children Rebeca (9), Aydin (2), and Joanna (1) had to adopt a whole new lifestyle once Johnson returned home.

“My youngest wanted nothing to do with me for a month,” Johnson recalled tearfully. “Now she wants everything to do with me,” she smiled, looking down at the bright-eyed toddler who refuses to leave her mother’s lap. Her eldest daughter struggled the most while her mother was gone, as the other two were young enough to adapt more quickly. “I would cry myself to sleep, and pray that she would get better,” Rebeca shared about the hard days when her mom was in the hospital. Now she is her mother’s best helper and right-hand man, helping her mom to get around and care for her younger siblings.

Ellen has been working overtime to overcome her physical limitations, but it isn’t easy. “I had to figure things out,” she explained. “If I were to fall on the floor when I was alone with the kids, who’s going to help me out? My children were my motivation – I had to come home to them. They push me to be the best I can be every day.”

So Johnson started working even harder to exceed expectations. “I push myself. I train myself,” she said. “When I’m not at therapy, I’m always doing something to keep myself strong.”

The first week home, Steve stayed with her to help adjust to her surroundings. Johnson grew proficient at transferring herself on a slide board, a hard piece of wood with one end beneath her and the other end at her destination.

But even the simplest tasks became obstacles to conquer. “I had to learn how to sleep again. All you can do is twist your upper half. If you want to find out what life is like for me, duct tape your legs together, sit on the floor, and try to figure out how to get from one point to another.”

In addition to her incredible friends, family, and nurses, Johnson’s resilient spirit and positive outlook are keeping her from getting discouraged as she progresses. “I don’t want sympathy; I want encouragement. I want people to be ecstatic about the small things, the little victories. If I’m going to wallow in pity, I won’t recover.” Johnson hopes to return to work at Valley View Nursing Home in Houston.

The family is hoping to get a specialized vehicle to help bring Ellen more independence and mobility. They are also in the midst of a move to a single-story home, and will need to install adaptive equipment to meet her needs.

“I have to fight every day to want to continue,” Johnson confessed. “It’s a battle. A silent battle that no one sees. They don’t see what me and my family go through. It has taken its toll not just on me, but on them. It’s both frustrating and inspiring. It might take me five steps instead of one to do the things I used to do, but I don’t ever say I can’t do it.”

A benefit is planned for Saturday, May 4, 2019 at the Rushford American Legion from 4-8 p.m. to aid Johnson and her family with expenses with ongoing medical expenses, as well as those incurred as they adapt their home to meet her needs as a paraplegic.

For a free-will offering, there will be a pulled pork sandwich meal from 4 p.m. until gone. There will also be a bake sale, wine pull, single gun raffle, BINGO, silent auction, and a children’s silent auction. Those unable to attend can still make donations to Bremer bank in Houston, Minn.