With son paralyzed in wreck, they face a bleak vigil
A lanky dark-haired teen-ager with a ventilator tube in his mouth is stretched out in bed 17. Now and then, he wakes and looks around the pediatric intensive care unit.
Kevin Johnson Jr. doesn't move. He hasn't moved for a month - ever since surviving a car accident.
He and his father had been driving down a country road in Fayette County. Less than a half-mile from their home in Indianhead, the car skidded on a pile of gravel at the roadside, launching it into the air. It flipped once, perhaps twice, and landed on its roof.
"I just remember rolling around, and that's it," the senior Johnson says. He felt like he'd had the wind knocked out of him.
"I crawled out through the window of the car. (Kevin Jr.) was still in there. He wasn't trapped or nothin'. He was awake. I said, `Give me your hand' - I was going to pull him out through the window.
"And he said, `I can't move my legs.' So I said, `I'll go on and get help.'
"He kept tellin' me, `Dad, I'm all right, I'm all right.' "
Now, lying immobile in the unit, the 13-year-old boy still tells his family the same thing.
Johnson Sr. is a stoic man whose eyes are wet with unshed tears. He wears a flesh-toned back brace over his shirt, having broken three vertabrae in his mid-back.
He works as a laborer, but he figures he'll be all right.
"It's this little guy. I wasn't too familiar with what makes you not . . . move your legs, you know? He'd broke his neck."
Barbara Johnson sits on a chair, silent and tired. She is five months' pregnant with her sixth child. Kevin Jr. is her fourth. She was working in a pizza shop when she got the news.
"My daughter called me right after it happened," she says. "I was scared because I didn't know what was going on. When I first came in here, they told us he hadn't been moving from the chest down."
Her husband was nearby at UPMC Presbyterian, but doctors wanted her to wait before telling him of their son's condition. First, they took the boy into surgery to stabilize his neck.
She cannot fight back tears when she remembers telling her husband after the operation that their son had quadriplegic paralysis - that he couldn't move his arms or legs.
Her husband was on the verge of pulling out his own intravenous lines and walking out. He got out of the hospital as quickly as possible so he could see his son.
Now the Johnsons spend their days by their son's bedside, trying to cope with the bleakness of the unit. They've made new friends, other parents who live the hospital life, waiting for their children to announce that they feel better.
`It's very depressing around here," Kevin Sr. says. "You see a lot of stuff going on. It's a roller coaster."
A child can look well one moment and in the next be fighting for his life.
Barbara Johnson remembers that when they first came into the unit, her boy would get scared because they could hear another child yelling.
According to one of Kevin's nurses, Rose Faber, taking care of family is just as important as watching the patient.
"(Barbara Johnson) is not sleeping," she says. "You try to tell her."
The Johnsons have been given one of the sleeping rooms on the hospital's upper floors. The rooms are small and furnished with just a bed and a dresser, but they're better than sleeping on the floor of the waiting room, as many parents do.
Barbara Johnson leaves the unit to make calls and talk to friends and family, but before long, instead of sleeping, she returns to her vigil at her son's bedside, Faber says.
The nurse has treated several other patients with broken spines; it is almost a specialty of hers. Experience tells her that Kevin Jr. has a long way to go before he accepts what has happened.
"The first thing he said when he woke up, he was telling the other nurses, `I promise, lady, next time I'll wear a seatbelt,' " Faber says. "There's not going to be a next time. Kevin needs to yell, he needs to scream and he'll feel better. But he's not going to do it here.
"The one thing I know, and I keep trying to convince him, once they get to rehab, they really take off. Someday he'll come down this hallway, and he'll be in a wheelchair, but he'll be able to transfer himself (from chair to bed). He'll be back in school."
But before any of that can happen, Kevin has to be able to breathe.
The injury reduced his ability to move his chest wall and the diaphragm, the big flat muscle lining the bottom of the rib cage that acts like a bellows.
Several times over the past 20 days, doctors have taken Kevin off the ventilator so he could try to breathe on his own. He couldn't keep his airways open.
"He crashed this morning," his father says dispassionately. "His lung collapsed, they got it up, he came back off the ventilator, and then today about noon or so, he crashed."
"He was off for two days . . ." his mother says, staring into space.
Kevin Sr., the man who wasn't sure how broken necks related to immobile limbs, now talks of crashes (serious problems) and trachs, short for tracheostomy, a surgical procedure that opens a hole through the front of the neck and into the trachea or airway. "He's scheduled for a trach within the next couple of days," he says. "It'll be better for him."
Kevin will breathe through this doctor-made port instead of his mouth and nose, freeing him of the tube that now sticks out of his mouth and prevents him from talking. It also stops him from sitting, exercising or doing rehab. Over time, he will get a device that will enable him to speak even with the hole in his neck.
Mr. Johnson explains everything to his son. "He's a smart kid; he knows all of his medications. He says he'll walk again."
For now, the boy doesn't complain. "He doesn't say too much to us about his legs," Barbara Johnson says. "But he'll tell his brother."
Brad, at 22 the oldest of the Johnson children, is now his little brother's arms and legs. But all the family hope that after six or more months of rehab at the Children's Institute in Squirrel Hill, Kevin will be back on his feet.
"He'll be away from home for a while," Johnson Sr. says. "He needs the best. (The staff) would have liked to get rehab closer to home, but I asked for the best."
Does he feel guilty somehow?
"Yeah, I do," Johnson Sr. says. "There's a lot of ifs. You can't deal with the ifs now. You got to deal with the now, now."