written by Clay Johnson
This article is about what I have been through in the last year and a half and how my martial arts training and family and friends have helped me get through one bad thing after another. As many of you know from reading my article, “Parents,” my father passed away on January 13, 2005. On that day. my life changed more than I can ever tell you. Any time someone close to you dies, you can’t believe the pain. This was especially true for my mother; you see they had been married for 49 years. They were each other’s back up system. The day my dad died it was like someone had taken a pin and let all the air – or life – out of my mom. It was very hard for me, my girlfriend, Kimlee, and my sisters, Ann and Kandi, to watch. For me, it was especially difficult because I had lived with my parents all my life. I made up my mind that I was going to do my best to help my mother through this time. I would be there if she needed me.
I think we were all numb for the first few months after my dad’s death. My mom went in o hospital several times that year due to pneumonia. Part of this was because she had lung and respiratory problems from years of smoking, even though she stopped smoking in 1997. Also, mom had been on oxygen at night for years. As a result of this, I decided to spend as much time with her as I could. The only time I left her was to teach my classes, and once in awhile catch a movie with Kimlee. I tried to help her as much as I could with such things as taking care of monthly bills, and if something needed fixing around the house, I would ask one of my students to help out.
In the spring of last year, I took mom to the doctor because she was having some trouble breathing. They took an X-ray and found that she had pneumonia and put her in the hospital again for a week. While she was in the hospital one of her doctors suggested that she try respiratory therapy because he thought it would help her get her strength back and build breathing endurance. The respiratory therapy was 3 days a week for 12 weeks. The only hospital in the area that offered respiratory therapy was Bath County Hospital, which was about 20 miles from our home. I took my mom to therapy most of the time. I would go in with her and watch her work out.
One day, one of the therapists asked me if I wanted to do the same exercises mom was doing. I said sure, so I wouldn’t just be sitting there watching. In the beginning, the therapy was hard for my mom, and two bouts of pneumonia had left her very weak. As the weeks of therapy passed, mom got stronger and stronger and she was breathing much better. She was confident in herself once again, and I thought mom was going to get back to where she was heathwise before my dad’s death. She was much happier than she had been in months. Unfortunately, during her tenth week of therapy, mom was working on a rowing machine and pulled a muscle in her upper back. At that time I thought it might take a few weeks to a month for her back to heal, and I could get her back to therapy, but that would never happen.
One night, mom got up to use the restroom, slipped, and fell back-first against the toilet, which resulted in her having a compression fracture of two vertebrae in her upper back, and about a week’s stay in hospital, which included the Thanksgiving holiday. These setbacks were very hard on her because she had came so far with her therapy. I tried to keep her upbeat, but it was not easy. Since my dad passed away, I had been staying up at night to listen in case she needed something. This wasn’t hard for me because I don’t sleep well anyway. When I did make it to bed late, I would check to see if mom was ok. Most of the time she was asleep, but sometimes she was awake and she would ask me to get her a Coke or just come and talk with her awhile. She would say, “When I’m gone I want you to go have some fun. Take a trip or do something you have been wanting to do, because you have been looking after me since your daddy died.” I told her that I felt that I was not a great help to her. She got upset because I felt this way. I also told her, “You are not going anywhere if I can help it. “
January of 2006 rolled around, and mom wanted to try therapy again at our local hospital. She wanted me to do therapy with her, but my therapy was going to be stretching my legs and hips so it would be easier for me to get my shoes on by myself. Mom did therapy for a few weeks, then decided she couldn’t do it anymore because it wore her out breathing-wise. I continued to go for the stretching, and even though it was very painful, I hoped it would help me in the long term. Towards the end of January, I noticed mom was having more trouble breathing. I told her I was going to take her to see her doctor, but she said she had an appointment to see him later in the week. I said ok, but I thought she needed to see him sooner. One morning, I checked on her and she was in very bad shape, so I called my sister, Ann, who is a nurse and my girlfriend Kimlee, who is an OR tech, because I didn’t think she had much time left. When they got here, Ann said we taking mom to the hospital. Mom’s doctor met us there and checked her over. He said that it was pneumonia again.
This time she was in the hospital for 13 days. Mom got to come home around the first of February, but her doctor told her she had to have help around the clock help because she was still very weak and not too steady on her feet. I had someone come in and stay with her during the day, then my girlfriend and sisters would take turns staying at night to help her if she needed it.
On the morning of February 8, 2006 my mother died in her sleep, in her own bed at home, like she had wanted. My sisters woke me to give me the news. I knew it was coming, but it still hurt. I knew that my mother was in a better place with no more pain, and she was with my father, where she had wanted to be for a long time. The next few days were very hard for us all. I remember thinking to myself, Both mom and dad are gone, what am I going to do with them not here anymore? I have to thank all of my friends and students and friends of own family for their condolences and prayers at the time that it meant a lot. Lucky for me, I have Kimlee, whom I’ve been with since 1981, and my sisters, because I would have never realized how much I would need them in the weeks and months to come.
After my mother’s funeral, I felt like I had to go on with my life; that my mom wouldn’t have wanted me to sit at home and be so sad. I thought the best way to do this was to go back to what I normally did. One of these things is teaching, and another was stretching therapy. So on Thursday, February 16, 2006, one week and a day after my mom’s death, I had my last stretching therapy appointment. That morning a friend – Jerry Entsminger, whom I met while I was just getting started in karate years ago – came to visit. He’d heard about my mom’s death. He had come from California, where he now lives, to visit me and another friend he grew up with who was dying of cancer. Jerry wanted to visit with me for the whole day because he hadn’t seen me in several years. I told him I had an appointment, and he offered to take me. Then he planned on taking all my classes that night. While I was at therapy, everything was going like it normally did, until the last stretch of the day (which required me having to sit up on the edge of the therapy table and put my left foot on my right knee and push my left knee down slowly for the stretch). I had done this stretch for a month or so, and it was a very painful stretch for me. This time, I heard a bone in my left leg snap. It was my left femur and it had broken in two places. The therapist who was stretching me thought I had a dislocated hip at first, but I knew something had gone wrong because the sound in my body was like a shotgun going off. Then the wave of pain came. I didn’t pass out, but I had a death grip on that table. I remember thinking to myself, What the hell else can happen to me this year, and, I’m going to be late getting to class and I will probably never be able to walk again with my crutches. My therapist called the emergency room and they came and put me on a stretcher and took me to the ER. All this time, Jerry really didn’t know how to help or what to do, but he stayed with me the whole time, and I thank him for that. Before I left physical therapy, I asked them to call Kimlee, who was still working upstairs in the operating room, and let her know what had happened.
I have to say here and now that my broken leg was purely an accident. I don’t blame anyone for it happening. When I got to ER, they put me in an examining room.
While I was waiting to go to X-ray, Kimlee and a friend she works with came downstairs. When I saw the worried look, and the tears in her eyes, I started to cry, not because I was in pain, but because I felt like I was causing too much trouble for everyone. By then both of my brothers- in-law and my sisters were there. I don’t remember how or when they got there. I asked one of my brothers-in-law to go to my school and put a sign on the door telling what had happened, and that the school would probably be closed for some time. When I returned from X-ray, my orthopedic doctor, Dr. Weidman (who is also a good friend of the family) looked at my X-rays very carefully. He and his colleagues were trying to decide how to proceed. The problem was that I had, and still have, a curvature in my femur. Dr. Weidman decided to call a friend of, his Dr. Edwards, an orthopedic specialist from Roanoke, Virginia. Dr. Weidman explained the situation and Dr. Edwards said to send me over to Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where he would probably operate on me the next day. Then the doctors explained what was going to be happening. They had to straighten and splinter and immobilize my leg so that I could be transported by ambulance to Roanoke Memorial Hospital.
When I got to Roanoke Memorial Hospital, I was taken to the ER. Dr. Edwards came in and examined me. He said he would operate on me the next day. They found me a room and got me into bed, but not before putting a weight on my foot to keep the leg straight and they gave me something so I could sleep. Kimlee, Ann and Kandi had followed me over in their own cars. The next day, we were all a little scared, not knowing how things were going to turn out. The operation to repair my leg took about an hour and half. They put a piece of thallium rod, about 24 inches long, in my femur, with two screws at the top of and two screws at the knee to hold it in place so the bone would grow back right, and my leg would have added support. The hospital physical therapist had me up, bearing weight on my leg the next day, while I tried to walk with crutches. I didn’t have much success because it was very painful. The only side effect from surgery was from the anaesthesia, which makes me sick: I had a very bad case of hiccups off and on for four days – more on than off!
The next time I had physical therapy, the therapist had me try the parallel bars. This time I did much better. I walked six feet, but it was very painful. I used the parallel bars each day until I left the hospital. I was there five days total, then transferred to the Roanoke Memorial Rehab Center because Dr. Weidman said I would probably need rehab to get back on my feet and walking again. Dr. Weidman asked Dr. Stelmack (who is head of the rehab center and good friends with Dr. Weidman) to come and see me, and he did while I was still in the hospital. Dr. Stelmack said I would probably be in rehab 2 weeks, and when I got to go home, I would have to stay on one floor and have help around the clock for a month or more.
When I got to the rehab center, my sister, Ann, helped me get squared away. I got to meet the people who were going to be helping me. I didn’t start any of my therapy until the next day. I was in rehab for three weeks, and my schedule was about the same everyday: get up in the morning, get dressed, go eat breakfast, go to occupational therapy for an hour and then go to physical therapy for an hour, and then go to lunch. The schedule was the same in the afternoon. Sarah Grogan was my occupational therapist. She was great because she knew I had been a very independent person before I got hurt and it was really hard for me to do simple things, such as getting myself dressed. Sarah taught me little tricks to make this easier. She also helped me learn to transfer easier (like from my wheelchair to the bed, etc).
The whole occupational staff was great to work with. My physical therapist, Angela Gitner, understood that I had been very independent before I got hurt, and it was hard on me because I had to learn how to walk all over again. First, she started me on light stretching and walking with the parallel bars. I walked on the parallel bars for about a week, then the rest of the time I was there I used a walker.
One day, I asked Angela point blank if she thought I would ever be able to walk with crutches again. She said, “Sure you will; it will just take time.” Just like the occupational staff, all of the physical therapy staff helped me all along the way, and I have to thank them for that. They had me laughing everyday. For instance, one day I was telling Angela about the plastic surgery done on my left ear when I was a child. I told her that they had taken skin from my belly, left leg and butt to build my left ear. Without missing a beat, Angela rubbed my ear with her finger and said, “Guess this means I’m rubbing your butt.” I said, “I guess so,” and we both laughed. Another time, Angela wanted to put me on a freestanding table. The freestanding is used for weight bearing and stretching, and you can’t fall while you are locked into the table. Angela knew I wasn’t to sure about getting on the table, so when they got me up in it, she pulled me around and said, “Let’s dance.” The table has wheels on it, and we “danced” for about a minute. I laughed and felt better about being in that table.
Right before I got to come home, Angela had me walking on crutches with help; it was hard, but I did it. I don’t trust people right away as a rule, but both Sarah and Angela cared enough to make me believe that I could walk and be independent again. I had almost given up on myself, until I got mad at myself and had to prove that could do it. I learned something valuable in rehab: my troubles were not as bad as those of many others. There were people there with much bigger problems than mine. A lot of them came from car accidents, some had strokes, and some had gunshot wounds to the head. I made friends with most of them. One day while I was in physical therapy, Angela told me that I had helped someone without knowing it. One of the guys who was with me in therapy didn’t like to do his therapy (stretching & walking, etc.) because he said it hurt too much. I would push myself to the limit of what I could do at the time, while trying to walk or do anything I was asked to do – painful or not. He saw me doing it without quitting, so he starting working out because of what he saw in me.
Two of the hardest things about rehab were that I was a “fall precaution risk,” so I would have to ask for help to go to the rest room, etc., and this was very hard on me because I’m very independent. The other thing was being bored when the day of therapy was over, or on the weekends. We only had a half a day of therapy on Saturday and no therapy on Sunday and you can only watch so much TV. Kimlee and my sisters came to visit me as much as they could. They would bring new clothes to wear and mail from home, and take my dirty clothes home to be washed. Kimlee would try to come see me two or more times a week after she got off work in the afternoon. Ann would do the same, but her days off are different each week, so she was able come spend the day a few times and watch me in therapy and meet my therapists. My training partner, Chip Reves, came to see me a few times. Once, he brought some sticks and we trained in the dayroom.
I came home on March 15, 2006. Remember, I said they told me when I came home I would have to stay on one floor for a month? I stayed in the basement. I rented a hospital bed, and the bathroom in the basement was already set up for me. I also had to have someone with me all the time, around the clock. Kim and Ann took turns staying at night, and one of my students and good friend, Tim Presley, stayed with me during the day.
I had to continue my physical therapy when I came home. The place I picked to continue was Highlands Therapy and Industrial Rehabilitation in Covington, Virginia. The staff there was great to work with. I went for about a month and a half, two times a week. I have to thank Mark McCoy, Libby McCoy and Christina Callahan for all they have done for me during my rehabilitation.
During this time, my mom’s sister, Aunt Nancy, came to visit for a week to help and give everybody a little break. It was really great to have her visit. I have to really thank Aunt Nancy, because she took me anywhere I needed to go. She fixed my meals, helped me with my stretching exercises, and lots of other sthings. In April, I started going outside and walking with my walker at a park near my house. I would do laps on an old skating ring track with Tim holding onto me by a gate belt to keep me from falling. Tim told me one day while we were walking. “ I think you are ready to try your crutches the next time we walk.” I said I’d try, and I did use my crutches the next time I walked, and I did better than I thought I would. Libby from therapy wasn’t even planning on starting me back on crutches until May 1st, but I beat her to it by about two weeks. Around the beginning of May, Libby said she was “graduating me” from therapy because I didn’t need it anymore: I was already ahead of schedule with walking on my crutches again. Libby also said I could still come in and use the total gym and the leg press machine and get lightly stretched once in a while.
There was one nice thing that happened this year: in April I was inducted into the American Freestyle Karate Association Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement. I think my parents would have been proud of me.
During times of trouble you find out who your real family and friends are, and I sure found out who they were and were not. I have to give a big thank you to three of my black belts: Wayne Rumfelt, Dwayne Rumfelt and Kemper Murray for keeping my school open and running while I was recovering. Without them I would have probably lost my school. I thank everyone who visited me, or called to check on me while I was in the hospital and rehab. It meant a lot to me. I also want to say a big thank you to Guro Dan and Simo Paula Inosanto and Simo Paula’s sister, Carmen, for the phone calls when both my parents died and for all the get well cards and phone calls I got from them when I got hurt. If that doesn’t say “Family” I don’t know what does. I love them dearly.
It’s been six months since my mom died and got I hurt. I’m almost back to 100%. Kimlee is staying with me now and I know mom and dad would have liked that.
Some people may wonder what this article has to do with martial arts. It has a lot to do with martial arts. If it weren’t for that training, I might not have had the strength and stamina to make the “comeback.” Also, the friends within the martial arts “family” who helped me played an important role in my recovery.
Editor’s Note: “It is our hope that this article will be an encouragement and inspiration to anyone who has gone through very difficult traumatic times.” Clay Johnson has overcome many, many obstacles in his life. I am proud to know him, and proud to have him as a friend. CPB