Magazine Article

Excerpts from “The Day My Life was Changed”
By Wendell Bird Johnson
“…My thoughts return again to a beautiful summer day in August 1964. The sun rose early on a day assured to be very hot but ideal for farm work. It was the time of year we harvested the straw and the hay and I was working for a local farmer on the bench in Mapleton, Utah.

We had put in a very productive day, and since the afternoon was so hot, we decided to go to our favorite swimming hole up in the dry lands on the bench. An irrigation canal brought life to this part of the country, and in a clay embankment the water had washed away a small swimming hole, where, for generations, boys had found pleasure cooling off during the hot days of July and August. On the east side of the hole was an embankment perhaps ten feet high. As I stood atop it that afternoon in 1964, a summer thunderhead was rolling slowly toward the bench, creating a rather ominous atmosphere.

I looked down into the water and a strange shiver came over me. Not pausing to wonder about it, I set my position and lunged forward in what was supposed to be a shallow dive, but for some uncanny reason I turned in midair and arched straight down toward the small shelf of clay that lay underneath the water. At the time I could not see this shelf because the water was kind of muddy; but suddenly with all the force of my body, I rammed into the bottom.

The impact, I later learned, was sufficient to fracture my neck and sever my spinal cord. The thoughts that flooded my head were so many and so multiplied that I can’t recall now what they were, but I remember realizing that a person’s life really does pass before his eyes during the fleeting moments that seem to precede the end. I was filled with panic, shock, and confusion of a kind that cannot be described. Only those who have experienced such a moment of dreadful finality can really understand.

As the strong currents dragged me toward the bottom I suddenly realized that every sensation I had ever known now existed only in my memory. From the neck down, my body was totally paralyzed. It was as if a giant circuit breaker had been pulled, rendering my body helpless.

I had a growing awareness of the seriousness of my position. I was paralyzed, forced to the bottom, and unable to move a muscle to get to the surface. At this age we don’t live in fear of death or in fear of anything; we believe that youth is to be lived. But I encountered thoughts down there that awakened me from my impression that my life was indestructible at the early age of sixteen.

To try to struggle and have nothing happen, to try to swim – to move my arms and legs in a natural swimming movement- and to have no response, and to be cut off from any sensation from my body whatsoever were almost too much to bear. I knew I was within seconds of drowning.

As I tumbled helplessly with the current, my mind became clouded. A humming sound – a rushing in my ears – began to grow and grow and then to fade slowly, and I had resigned myself to the fact that death was very near. Suddenly I began to float to the surface! vaguely I could see daylight and could feel a lifting sensation, as my friend who had been working with me that day pulled me from the water. The urge to take a breath while underwater had been intense, and the feeling of relief as my bursting lungs drank in the air was almost overwhelming. Seven of my friends came down to the water, carried me up the bank carefully, and laid me down in the middle of the nearby dirt road.

I looked down at my body. Though it was still a part of me, I could not feel it. It was unreal. My body and soul had been stunned beyond belief, and through my excruciating emotions I hoped that all this would be over soon. Little did I know that in some respects, an endless nightmare had just begun.

The Mapleton ambulance, a blue Edsel, was not the best in the world. After I had been lifted into it, the engine wouldn’t start, and we had to be pushed down the road until it turned over. I had always hated the sound of sirens wailing the news of another’s misfortune. This siren announced my own tragedy and ushered me unwillingly into an experience that few ever encounter.

The corridors became darker as I was rolled to the older section of the hospital. I saw a sign over the doorway. It said “Intensive Care Unit”, and everywhere around me I could hear the sounds of the hospital: the gasping of an oxygen unit, the bleeps of pacemakers, people in crises, trying to survive.

The doctors took x-rays and discovered that my spinal cord had been almost severed and my neck had been fractured between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. They didn’t tell me then that I would not walk again in this life. Their immediate concern was keeping me alive through the night. They transferred me to a specifically designed frame for spinal injuries, applied some local anesthetic to two tiny areas on my skull, made two small indentations with a drill into the first layer of bone, and applied traction to the skull and neck area. This was to be my position for the next thirteen weeks. I was unable to make any movement other than to blink my eyes, and I could feel the pulling against my neck constantly. Never in my life have I felt more helpless or bewildered…”

“…As time passed, I went into surgery for fusions of the broken vertebrae. The incisions finally healed, and I began therapy each day to see how much of a return of the nerve function we could hope to accomplish. At first there was no response, and I was shocked to see how shrunken my arms had become. All the muscles I had built up through heavy farm work were gone, and we were starting all over again.
Many discouraging, fruitless sessions followed. Then, one day, as I was watching the therapist work on the small bicep that remained, I saw a twitch! This was the first sign of life in my arm in fifteen weeks! We began to work on this twitch, and in a week it became a twitch to the second power. This little improvement became a source of hope…by all rights I should have remained totally paralyzed for the remainder of my life…”

“…Through the kindness of the governor of the state and the armed forces at Hill Air Force Base; I was flown in a cargo transport to the Stanford Medical Center at Palo Alto, California, for further therapy…”

“We began with a vigorous therapy session, concentrating mostly on the arms, neck, and shoulders. I still did not have any movement from the elbows down to the wrists and hands, so I wore a special brace with an attachment device to hold a spoon. I started out by picking up pieces of clay and trying to feed myself peanut butter. I never thought it was possible to spill peanut butter, but I managed to do it quite a number of times. I found everything but my mouth, and I almost got a faceful of mashed potatoes or whatever every time I tried to eat. With just the bicep working, I had only one movement. I could bend my arm, and that was it.

In my early life I had been interested in oil painting, drawing, graphics – anything that had to do with art. Now I had lost the ability to even hold a pen or brush…”

“Then one day, as I sat working with a sander to strengthen the shoulder motion that I had, I noticed a pencil on the table. For a moment, I daydreamed about how wonderful it would be to be able to do a simple thing like pick up the pencil and write my name. This illustrates how meaningful even the smallest things became.

At my request the brace maker fashioned a small attachment to the brace that enabled me to hold the pencil in an almost natural position. I stared down at the paper, afraid to begin. I felt like a small child picking up the first crayon. And as I applied the pencil to the paper, I found that I could only make senseless scribblings. I couldn’t even form the basic letters of the alphabet!

I won’t elaborate on the devastating discouragements that presented barriers at this time; but after three months of treatment, I did succeed in making one small drawing of a tree, and I had learned to print my name. This was, to me, great progress…”