Haley Johnson after standing and taking that first step Friday morning with Dr. Justin Smith and Dr. Taima McCartney (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
ELIZABETHTON — Come on legs! WORK.
Those were the words written on a Twitter post by Haley Johnson, accompanied by a picture of her non-functioning legs, one day after her spinal cord concussion injury during Cloudland's Class A girls sectional basketball game against Meigs County on March 1.
Friday morning at Physical Therapy Services in Elizabethton, Johnson's legs finally began to cooperate.
With tears in her eyes, the 17-year-old senior took a big step, figuratively, in the road to recovery: She stood on her own.
Grasp that for a moment. It has been two weeks of not being able to walk for a kid who was not only a standout athlete, but also a mother of a 16-month-old son.
Yet somehow this young lady flashed a smile that illuminated the room. She spoke of hope, not gloom.
Doctors expect a full recovery, though the process could be frustratingly slow. And with perhaps miles yet to go, thankfulness for the help of others is what seems to emanate from Johnson's heart.
“I just want to mention how amazing everyone has been,” said Johnson on Friday. “They have prayed. They came to visit. I got a card signed by South Greene teachers, administration, and players that had $100 in it. And the guy who brought it to me was one of their fans.”
Johnson said a lot of people have helped her, especially Taima McCartney.
“I just want to say how awesome Taima McCartney is,” said Johnson with a smile.
McCartney is the athletic trainer at Cloudland, and she works at Physical Therapy Services. She was one of the first people to get to Johnson after her injury.
Late in the fourth quarter of a game the Lady Highlanders would eventually lose, Johnson slid over in an attempt to take a charge. After the collision with a Meigs player, Johnson fell backwards and landed on the floor.
Soon, Johnson was being asked if she could feel her feet. Once she got her senses back, Johnson wasn't thinking it was a serious injury.
“I wasn't really that scared, and I didn't think it was a big deal,” said Johnson. “I felt like everyone was yelling at me. It took a little while for me to be able to focus. My back was hurting and my head was hurting.”
Johnson was down for 20 minutes, and the gym had gone from raucous to silent. The Cloudland student section knelt in a circle for a prayer. Lower Shell Christian Church minister Gerald Holly led a prayer from the PA system.
Johnson was transported to Johnson City Medical Center, and most of the night was a serious challenge that seemed to grow worse. At first, Johnson was told feeling would return to her lower extremities and she would be released.
Instead, she was hospitalized: an expected short-term decision that eventually lasted five days. An MRI revealed no swelling at all, which led to the diagnosis of a spinal cord concussion.
Johnson's dad, Scotty, said he wasn't thinking about basketball.
“The athlete thing leaves, and it's daughter,” said Scotty. “There was concern, fear. I'm not sure how you describe it. Terrifying is a good word.”
A car wreck a couple of years ago, where Johnson suffered a back injury, probably played a role in this incident. She was hospitalized for two days after the wreck.
“I told her this time I've had enough,” said Scotty with a laugh. “I told her she wasn't allowed another one.”
Johnson said the first day after the basketball injury she kept expecting to be able to walk around. When the diagnosis changed to 72 hours, Johnson said she started getting down.
But the entire hospital experience was made more manageable because of the love shown by friends and family, said Johnson.
“I had a ton of visitors,” she said. “The first night, there were over 30 people. The waiting room was full. That helped a lot.”
One of things that helped Johnson was the action of McCartney. The clinical director of Physical Therapy Services, Dr. Justin Smith, said the handling of potential spinal-trauma patients can make a life-altering difference. And McCartney had no field experience as this was her first spine-board patient.
Johnson began treatment at Physical Therapy Services on March 7, and McCartney is her therapist. She said Johnson's improvement has been impressive.
“She has made tremendous gains,” said McCartney. “She had no feeling and no movement when she came here, but every day there has been something new she has been able to do. And she has had a great attitude the entire time. Haley is the most inspirational patient.”
Johnson's attitude has been an important part of the process. A conversion disorder can cause a patient to suffer from neurological symptoms without a definable organic cause.
“The doctor told me it could be a mindset problem,” said Johnson, who returned to school Monday. “I've tried to tell myself if I don't stay positive, I won't get better.”
A positive mindset seems natural for Johnson instead of something manufactured. It was easy to see her eyes light up when asked if she wanted her son, Brycen, to be mentioned in the story.
It also brought tears to her eyes.
“When (the injury) happened I wondered how I would raise a 16-month-old boy from a wheelchair,” said Johnson. “That terrified me. My family has been great helping with him.
“And Brycen has helped me a ton. He's my motivation.”
Johnson reached out to others who may be going through something similar to her.
“Don't get down,” she said. “There's no need to sit around and think why me, or that something is too hard.”
The folks at Physical Therapy Services have helped Johnson quite a bit, too.
“Coming here has been great,” said Johnson. “From the front desk to back here, they are all so friendly and nice.”
Smith said there's a reasonable goal of Johnson walking across the stage to receive her diploma.
“Today or tomorrow, no,” said Smith. Walking across the stage in May? I think so. It's a lofty goal, but a very achievable goal.”
Scotty said the community support, here and in other communities, has been unbelievable.
“There has been so much outpouring,” said Scotty. “Prayers and concern do matter. I expect nothing but a full recovery because God is good. That's the reason I'm confident.
“And we want everybody to know how proud we are of a little red-headed girl in the corner of East Tennessee.”