By Mike Brue
Home is where Kyle Johnson’s heart is.
He’d like to be there, too.
The 28-year-old hasn’t seen his Grand Forks residence, which he shares with his parents, since leaving for his job with the Grand Forks Public Health department’s Mosquito Control team the morning of Aug. 21, 2013.
Around 8:30 a.m. that morning, an accident involving a train derailed Kyle’s life — and nearly ended it.
Kyle Johnson had other ideas. Still does.
“I’m getting stronger every day,” he said Wednesday from a Twin Cities rehabilitation facility. He’s working hard to get home by mid-February, perhaps Valentine’s Day.
His parents, Les and Deb Johnson, call their son the most courageous person they know.
A benefit Saturday in Grand Forks, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the sixth floor of the Grand Forks County Office Building, (see sidebar for details) intends to raise some money to help Kyle and his family offset some of the daunting medical and related expenses that have resulted during Kyle’s recovery journey.
Kyle and a Mosquito Control team co-worker, Jonathan Bartel, were hit by a train while riding a work vehicle, a Kubota rough terrain vehicle, when crossing railroad tracks west of the city’s Industrial Park. Neither knew a train was on the tracks; although train whistles were blown, the young men – wearing head gear to protect their hearing — did not hear the whistles.
Both Kyle and Jonathan still were strapped in the RTV when emergency responders arrived.
Both young men were rushed to Altru Hospital, where life-saving triage began immediately. Jonathan suffered multiple injuries, including a broken pelvis. Kyle experienced the worst injuries and was in critical condition. He needed emergency surgery for internal bleeding and a traumatic head injury; he also had a collapsed lung, bruised vertebrae and ribs, and the ocular socket of his right eye was broken.
These days, Kyle is working daily, and diligently, in therapy at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute (a merger of Courage Center and the Sister Kenny rehab operations) in Golden Valley, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, in an effort to recover from trauma to his brain and brain stem.
Kyle’s speech is impaired, as is his ability to walk. He tends to speak more slowly than he once did. Particularly when fatigued, he struggles to retrieve the words he wants to use, with the intonation in which he hopes to speak. His memory is tested if it involves events beyond a “floating window” of several weeks, said his dad, Les Johnson. Kyle’s left side is stronger than his right, and he’s needed a wheelchair much of the time to get around.
Yet, the progress he’s already made since the accident is substantial. Increasingly, Kyle walks with supports such as a walker; for the first time last weekend, he used a cane.
“It’s a little weird to walk with a cane – but terrific,” he said in a phone interview this week.
And these days, conversation — occasional quips included — emerges with steadily increasing clarity from Kyle Johnson. So do smiles and self-confidence, more so than during any time since the accident.
“The therapy here is good, but (effort) has to come from both sides,” said Cindy Leach, a Courage Kenny social worker who has worked with Kyle since he arrived in mid-November. “He’s a hard-working young man.”
“Although stubborn,” Kyle interjected.
“Although stubborn,” she echoed.
Deb Johnson, Kyle’s mom, said her son “has not lost his ability to be motivated. He always says, ‘Mom, I’m working 110 percent.’
“His motivation,” she adds, “is to get home.”
Les said he’s proud of Kyle and his persistence, and he admires the goals Kyle’s set: to speak and walk “normally,” and to work a full-time job. Les calls them reasonable, yet very challenging goals.
“I don’t think any of those three things are going to be really easy,” Les said. “I think he’s had a very realistic view of where he is today, but he’s not satisfied with that. He wants to move forward. It would be very easy to just give up and say, ‘This really is a bad thing that happened to me and my life is over and it’s not worth it anymore.’ ”
Once he arrived at Courage Kenny, Kyle met others with brain injuries “and he realized he was not the only person who had something bad happen to him . . . that these types of things happen in life and many times they’re absolutely random.”
Kyle Johnson says he can see the benefits of rehabilitation therapy, and he acknowledged all of the encouragement, kindness and support he’s received to date from fellow Courage Kenny temporary residents and staff. In fact, he said, it is those people – along with family members, friends and other people rooting for his recovery – who convinced him that he should not be overly eager to return home to Grand Forks, before he’s ready to do so.
“To go home early or to stay here,” he said, “I would choose to stay here. . . . I feel like I have to improve myself for them. . . . I felt honored that so many people care and want to see me get better. It’s amazing.”
Kyle’s parents say their son’s attitude is another indication of how far he’s come in just several months. In fact, the entire Johnson family – including a sister, Shaun; and a brother, Scott, and sister-in-law, Amy, who live in the Twin Cities metro area– are continuing to adjust to Kyle’s ever-evolving status.
“When you live with a member of the family who has gone through a tragedy, and it’s a young person, I think everybody in the family starts to think about returning back to normal, and that things will return back to exactly how he was before,” said Les Johnson, human resources director and a business management instructor at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. “I think that was true with our family. Now that we’ve been given time to be more realistic . . . we don’t know what the outcome will be.”
For Les and Deb, it’s been part of their conversations during week after week of road trips to and from the Twin Cities.
“We were talking about how far we have come and how we can’t lose perspective on how close we were to really losing him,” recalled Deb, a speech language pathologist and 38-year-Grand Forks School District employee who returned to work in November after Kyle’s transfer to Courage Kenny. “You tend to look forward and hope for more, but yet you have to really appreciate and celebrate how far we’ve come.”
Les added, “If two weeks after the accident, a doctor or somebody else would have come and said, ‘Don’t worry, here’s where you’re going to be in January of 2014,’ we would have been ecstatic. We would have celebrated.”
Kyle understands his progress brings him that much closer to returning home, but he acknowledged that his homecoming won’t mark the conclusion of the challenges he still faces. Deb and Les Johnson suspect the challenges may weigh more on their own minds than on their son’s right now.
“Sometimes I think he still feels he’s going to return to life exactly the way it was prior to the accident very soon,” Les said.
Deb Johnson said she’s exhilarated about the growing prospect of Kyle returning home and being able to complete his therapies at Altru. “And yet,” she added, “how do we manage it?”
Initially, Kyle will need 24/7 care, Les said.
Some of the more daunting challenges ahead for Kyle are right inside the house he’s called home for most of his young life. The Johnson house wasn’t built with accessibility in mind. He knows he’ll need to be able to maneuver the series of steps that divide the Johnson home’s split-foyer entrance. Kyle has lived downstairs.
“Six steps down. Seven steps up. He has to find a way to get upstairs and downstairs,” Deb Johnson said. “It’s a challenge.”
“It’s a big challenge,” Kyle conceded, when asked about the stairs. “But I think I can do it.”
But the Johnsons can’t help but have some optimism.
“He has really climbed a lot of mountains already,” Les said.
For Les Johnson, the challenges Kyle faces have heightened his awareness of the environmental obstacles for people with accessibility limitations. “It had really increased my empathy for what that experience might feel like,” he said. “I never had to think about whether our house is handicapped accessible. I never had to think about how wide the doorways were. I never had to think about handicapped bathrooms in public places or aisles that weren’t wide enough for people to go through.”
The Johnsons know they somehow managed to deal with Aug. 21, 2013, “a day of incredible, incredible stress, shock and disbelief,” Les Johnson said.
“About a year earlier, my father passed away,“ Les recalled. “When you have a parent who is struggling for a time, you can kind of see it coming, and you have time to prepare about what probably is going to happen. “But when you have a child in their most vital part of their life, and you go to work totally not expecting that anything unusual is going to happen that day, and then you find that your child is on the verge of dying – that is not something I think anybody prepares for.“
Kyle’s parents were anything but prepared when they reached Altru Hospital the morning of Aug. 21 – Les driving in from Crookston, Deb receiving a ride from a Phoenix Elementary colleague.
Les recounted the nightmarish scene in the emergency room, roughly 90 minutes after the accident but prior to an emergency operation, as Kyle was lying on a table, “totally white and unconscious. . . . looking like he was lying on a slab.
“We walked out of the room, and my wife collapsed right there.”
Just three days later, with Kyle still in a sedation coma, his parents learned that their son’s brain stem showed bruising that suggested significant long-term damage. The revelation shocked them.
After that, for about the first month following Kyle’s accident, Les recalled, it seemed that all the signs about Kyle’s progress were “double-edged swords.” Each new sign of his recovery was accompanied by a sharpened awareness “that there was a lot of damage, that there was a lot of uncertainty still.”
On Aug. 29, with Kyle’s sedation lightened slightly, Kyle moved his left thumb upward slightly and was able to slightly move the little finger on his left hand upon command.
Deb leaned over one of her son’s ears: “Kyle, can you hear me? Tap my hand.”
“And he squeezed my hand,” she recalled.
“That was one of the best days we had,” she said. “We knew that somewhere, Kyle was there and was able to respond. . . . It was phenomenal. It really was. That was where we started having hope that he was going to have a life after that, that we’re going to do OK.”
Deb Johnson also recalls the day at Altru when Kyle, who has asthma, first showed he could breathe on his own. He had to battle pneumonia in those first few weeks, too. “That day,” she recalled, “we were realizing how lucky we really were.”
That night, driving from Altru to their south Grand Forks home, the Johnsons saw luminarie bags glowing on both sides of the street, at each driveway entrance on the residential block where they lived. Two luminaria, resting on a white car, had the letters “K” and “J” cut into one side.
Les and Deb responded with tears. “It was so unexpected,” Les said. “And it went on for days,” ending by the time Kyle was transferred to St. Paul Bethesda Hospital, an acute rehabilitation facility.
At Bethesda, when Kyle finally started eating and was able to swallow on his own, “that meant he wasn’t going to be stuck on feeding tubes for the rest of his life,” Deb recalled.
Several months ago, Kyle’s family wondered whether his next stop would be a group home or some other transitional facility. Now, they know he’s been given a rather fitting tentative date — Feb. 14 — for his long-desired trip home.
It’s not the first time Kyle has exceeded expectations.
A Grand Forks Red River High School graduate, Kyle Johnson attended the University of Minnesota at Crookston and surprised his parents by earning not one, but two degrees in 2009 — in Information Technology Management and Business Management.
Since then, he’s juggled multiple seasonal jobs – with Grand Forks Mosquito Control, American Crystal Sugar during the sugar beet harvest campaign, with Dietrich Bus Service, serving as a substitute school bus driver who also drives buses for parties and University of North Dakota hockey games. Always, according to those who know him and work with him, he has a solid, admirable work ethic. A guy who learned his job and, once he did, you didn’t have to worry about him doing it.
“A good worker. Thorough. He really pays attention to detail,” said Todd Hanson, who manages the city’s Mosquito Control program.
“I work and I play pretty hard,” Kyle said.
Kyle was in his seventh summer of work at Mosquito Control in 2013. His parents say he enjoyed the outdoor work and the physical activity, but especially his co-workers. “It was one of his favorite jobs,” Les said.
On a Sunday morning last fall, five of Kyle’s Mosquito Control co-workers got into a vehicle in Grand Forks and traveled to see their injured colleague at Bethesda Hospital. The co-workers spent a few hours with Kyle before driving back to Grand Forks that same day. One of the co-workers had a big school exam the following day and studied for it during the trip. One of the others was Jonathan Bartel, the co-worker injured along with Kyle in the August train collision.
“Up to that point, he was pretty negative,” Les Johnson said about his son’s outlook on his circumstance. “He would say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ He didn’t have much of a vision how he was going to recover.
“I think he was just so stunned that these people he had worked with would commit so much time just to drive that distance, just to say, ‘Kyle, we’re here. We’re still rooting for you.’ I think what he told me after they left is, ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe they came all that way.’ ”
The visit, Kyle recalled, “was a turning point for me. I want to work with them again.” Mosquito Control’s Hanson, who visited Kyle at Bethesda earlier, is glad his young employee feels that way.
“You know, really, I think what we all hope and pray for is that Kyle has an independent life — where his recovery is such that he will be able to live independently,” Hanson said. “We certainly would love to get him back into the program. . . . I think that would just really help his recovery also. If he knows he can continue to be an asset to this program, that’s going to help him and us both.”
But first things first. Kyle Johnson needs to get home to Grand Forks. And he will, Kyle says. He’s working on it.
Mike Brue is communications director for NDAD.
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Learn more about Saturday’s Kourage for Kyle Johnson Benefit at http://www.ndad.org/fundraisers.asp. On that page, you also can make an online donation to help Kyle and his family, using a credit card or PayPal account.
Donations to help the Johnsons also may be mailed to: NDAD, c/o. Kyle Johnson Fundraiser, 2660 S. Columbia Road, Grand Forks, ND 58201. Please make checks payable to NDAD and be sure to write “Kyle Johnson” on the check’s memo line.
All proceeds from this fundraiser — 100 percent — will be used to help defray medical and related expenses for Kyle and his family.
NDAD is a sponsor of the Kyle Johnson fundraiser and benefit through our charitable nonprofit’s Community Fundraisers Program, a free service that has helped individuals and families with serious health challenges or disabilities for many years. Learn more about the program by calling (800) 532-NDAD.