July 4, 2010, Colby Johnson was celebrating Independence Day with friends and family at a private lake near Wisner, Neb. Swimming in waist deep water, he attempted a shallow water dive. Johnson’s next memory is being helpless on the bottom of the lake. “I pleaded with God to let me see my wife Jo one more time,” said the 35-year-old from Omaha, Neb.
Jo thought Johnson, who is humorous by nature, was simply joking around when his body disappeared underwater. As Johnson’s body slowly floated to the surface, Jo, a former lifeguard, instinctively knew something was terribly wrong. As she frantically moved through the water, Jo’s fears were confirmed when she gently flipped Johnson over and found his speech was impaired. “Colby’s breathing was labored and his diaphragm was paralylzed,” said Jo. She screamed for someone to call 911 and for 30 minutes Jo supported her husband’s body, with friends, until a rescue team arrived.
Johnson was lifeflighted to Mercy Medical Center in Sioux City, Iowa. Tests revealed he had shattered the C-6 cervical region of his spinal cord, resulting in an incomplete spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed. An incomplete injury indicates that some function below the level of injury is retained.
Johnson admits that suddenly being paralyzed is “very scary,” but the diagnosis of an incomplete injury gives him hope for future recovery.
On July 8, a weakened Johnson arrived at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. He couldn’t lift his arms or hands and kept fainting when his blood pressure would plummet.
“My goals were to sit up, move my arms, feed myself and eventually to walk again,” said Johnson. A major struggle for the young man was getting his muscles to move. Johnson’s positivity fueled his often arduous rehabilitation journey. “I treat therapy like my job,” said Johnson. “It’s a great opportunity to be here and each day I give it all I’ve got.”
During his inpatient care, Johnson’s Madonna team introduced him to a variety of technology for strengthening muscles including the Moveo XP™, RT 300 FES® Bike and Lokomat® robotic gait trainer. Physical Therapist Matt Ulmer saw monumental gains as Johnson progressed through months of therapy. “Colby’s motivation, positive outlook and determination to improve are amazing,” said Matt. “He is a perfect example of why I chose to become a physical therapist.”
One night, watching a movie with Jo, Johnson found he could wiggle his toes. “We laughed and cried,” said Jo, as they celebrated the small feat in Johnson’s recovery.
As his strength increased, aquatic therapy was added to Johnson’s schedule. “It’s phenomenal because you’re so unrestricted in the water,” he said.
Recreational therapists incorporated Johnson’s hobby of fishing by taking him on short fishing excursions to nearby lakes. He also experienced working out on adaptive equipment at Madonna ProActive, a medically-based health and fitness center. “I’ve been to a lot of gyms, but that place is unbelievable!” exclaimed Johnson. Fitness Trainer Anthony Sobotka said despite the curveball life threw him, Johnson’s positivity was amazing. “His attitude, focus and spirit are contagious, and stick with you,” said Anthony.
Occupational Therapist Nicole Brown introduced adaptive devices that made a significant difference in Johnson’s grip. Jo said, “When we came to Madonna I was feeding Colby — a task he’s mastered himself now.”
Johnson recently transitioned to Madonna’s outpatient program. The young man credits the support of his wife, family, friends, his Madonna team and strong faith for the goals he’s accomplished. Johnson is independent in all his self-cares, completes transfers from his wheelchair and is getting some movement back in his legs. During a recent aquatic therapy session, Johnson proudly took his first steps in the pool.
Before his accident, Johnson was taking classes toward a registered nursing degree and hopes to one day resume that career path. “Right now, I’m focused on the recovery,” said Johnson. “I almost died; I’m lucky to be alive — everything else is free.” Jo is confident a higher power is watching over her husband. “God is helping us; that’s the reason Colby is still alive,’ she said.
When he came to Madonna, Johnson felt he was in survival mode. Physically, he continues to make gains every day and explained, “I’m still in healing mode, but I’ve come so far.”