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Featured Stories

Jared’s Story: A Journey of Physical and Spiritual Healing

Written by  Susan E. Dubuque

A brilliant child. A gifted athlete and talented musician. A life destined for great achievements. That’s how one might aptly have described Jared Johnson. But, at the age of 22, Jared suffered an injury that almost ended his life and rendered him nearly blind.

Yet, through the process of recovery and healing, Jared discovered true vision.

From the moment he could utter his first words, Jared was a precocious child. Educated in a private Christian school from kindergarten through second grade, Jared was then homeschooled by his mother until he was ready for high school. “We had to constantly challenge him,” says Christy Johnson, Jared’s mother, “or he would become bored and restless.” By the time he was 12 years old, Jared was taking classes at Virginia Western Community College.

Jared excelled during high school, attending the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School and Northside High School, where he thrived academically. In ninth grade, Jared was conducting research on Fusarium keratitis, a fungal infection of the eye most commonly occurring among contact lens users that can lead to blindness. At this point in time, he aspired to follow in the footsteps of his father, Richard Johnson, and become an ophthalmologist.

But Jared was anything but a “nerdy bookworm.” He played a variety of sports, from recreational baseball and soccer to high school golf and tennis, and he was an accomplished pianist, having performed in the prestigious National Piano Guild Auditions.

“During high school, I lived in two worlds,” recalls Jared. “Part of the day, I was the geeky kid at the Governor’s School — the one who loved to learn. The other half of the day, I hung around with the ‘cool kids.’ It was a double life, but I loved it.”

In 2010, Jared graduated from high school as class valedictorian. The strength of his personality, character and faith shone through when Jared took on the school administration to be able to lead his graduating class in prayer at the commencement exercise.

The Hard Transition to College

“I was accepted to a number of great colleges,” says Jared. “But I was drawn to UVA [University of Virginia] for several reasons. First was family legacy — my dad went to UVA. This is a great school for sciences, and I planned to go to medical school. The fact that they offered me a full scholarship didn’t hurt either.”

The shift from high school to college was difficult for Jared. He found that he couldn’t concentrate, and he wasn’t sleeping well. He sought relief at the student health center, where his physician wrongly prescribed benzodiazepines, an anxiolytic to help Jared cope with anxiety. Instead, the drug made things worse.

Things continued to spiral downward. “For the first time in my life, I wasn’t focused on my goals. I couldn’t study, and I started missing classes,” says Jared. “By spring semester of my second year, I was in freefall. I would show up for my first class, then skip the rest of the semester. I would cram for the midterm and final exams, and I managed to barely squeak by.” By his third year at UVA, Jared added alcohol to the equation. “I was miserable and realized that my life was a mess. I tried to fill the void by self-medicating.”

There was one positive revelation that emerged from all this fog. While driving from Charlottesville to Roanoke to visit his family, Jared was stopped by a police officer for a driving infraction. “The officer ticketed me for something I didn’t do,” insists Jared. “I gathered evidence, took photos and developed a case, clearly showing that I was cited for the wrong thing.” Jared went to court to defend himself. “For the first time in years, I felt alive,” says Jared. It was that incident that convinced Jared to change his major from chemistry to psychology and shift his career goal from medical school to law school.

This renewed spark was not sufficient to pull Jared up from the depths of his despair. “My grades were so low that I realized I was going to have to repeat a statistical psych course. I was depressed and just couldn’t see what my future would hold.”

During winter break of his fourth year, Jared went home for the holidays. “I was living a lie. I would spend time at church activities with my Christian friends, then go out with my drinking friends. I was exhausted maintaining this ruse,” says Jared. “But the hardest part was the self-deception. I kept telling myself that I could stop anytime I wanted. But the truth was my life was a runaway train.” On December 20, 2013, Jared’s train derailed.

Jared has very few memories of the events leading up to and following his injury, but piecing the story together reveals that, while he and a friend were out drinking, they were involved in an incident with a gun that accidentally discharged. A fragment of the bullet struck Jared’s head and lodged in his brain. A policeman who was in the vicinity responded quickly, and Jared was rushed to the trauma center at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital.

At 3:30 am, Christy and Richard Johnson were awakened by a knock on their door. Two policemen informed them that their son was in critical condition in the emergency department. They did not know what happened or if he was still alive. “We hurried to the hospital,” says Richard. “All we knew was that Jared was seriously injured. We ran into the ED and had just a minute to tell him how much we loved him before Jared was rushed into surgery in an attempt to save his life.”

Life in the Balance

Jared’s dad contacted his pastor and some other Christian friends. “We started praying to God to spare Jared’s life and heal him,” says Richard. “Miraculously, the bullet missed every major vein and artery in the brain.” But Jared’s condition was critical, and for days the Johnsons remained in the hospital as Jared’s life hung in the balance. “Prayer updates were sent out multiple times a day. The sun never set on prayers for our son as people all over Asia, Africa, Europe, Israel, Mexico, Brazil and the United States of America continued a prayer chain.”

Jared was given pentobarbital to put him in a medically induced a coma in an effort to prevent his brain from swelling. Complications continued to bombard Jared in his already fragile state. On Christmas day, he was treated for blood clots in his lungs. This was followed by pneumonia in his lungs. Five days later, Jared’s parents learned that he would need a craniectomy — the removal of a piece of his skull to relieve the pressure in the brain. And, if that wasn’t enough, a wound leak was cultured and revealed that he had a Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection — a potentially lethal bacterial infection that is resistant to most commonly used antibiotics. “Every step of the way our family and the prayer chain would pray for wisdom for the doctors and healing from God,” says Richard. “Every step of the way God provided.”

Throughout Jared’s hospitalization, the Johnsons never left their son’s side. “We would stay until they kicked us out,” says Christy. “Josh, our younger son, stayed with friends and members of our church family when not in the hospital. Everyone was incredibly kind. On Christmas day, Jared’s best friend’s parents came to the hospital and laid out a huge meal for everyone who had a loved one in the critical care unit. It was a beautiful blessing for all of us and another example of our Christian family taking care of us as well as others.”

While in the Neuro ICU stepdown unit, Jared was evaluated for acceptance to the Shepherds Center, a world-renowned rehabilitation facility in Atlanta, Georgia. “This is a specialized facility for certain patients that they believe have the best opportunity for rehabilitation,” explains Richard. “Through God’s provision, on January 23, Jared, accompanied by his mother, flew by medevac from Roanoke to Atlanta.”

“After we arrived, Jared had to be evaluated by Shepherd to determine the best course of rehabilitation,” says Christy. “The neurologist who examined him exclaimed, ‘He shouldn’t be here.’ I realized that he didn’t mean Jared shouldn’t be at Shepherd; he meant Jared shouldn’t be alive.” A fragment of a .40 hollow point that entered one side of Jared’s cranium now rested, and still remains, on the opposite side after passing through a significant amount of brain tissue. Christy didn’t hesitate in responding to the neurologist, “I know, but God has a different plan.”

The next day Jared was formally admitted to Shepherd for intensive rehabilitation. “Jared had not moved much since he was injured, but, from the start, he had physical, occupational and speech therapy twice each day,” says Christy. “It was grueling just to watch.” Jared was starting from ground zero. He couldn’t sit, stand or even hold his head up independently. His wrists had to be restrained so that he wouldn’t pull the intravenous tubes out of his arms. He was gradually coming out of the drug-induced coma — with no memory of the past month. He was disoriented and blind. Imagine the state of terror that he experienced upon regaining consciousness.

Around the 10th day at Shepherd, as his cognitive abilities began to reemerge, Jared realized that he couldn’t see. “I didn’t want to live if I was blind,” said Jared. “Everything I enjoyed doing involves sight — driving, shooting, playing the piano and scuba diving.” His depression was understandable but thankfully short lived with the help of an antidepressant.

Jared’s rehab progressed rapidly. “It was like watching my child grow up at warp speed before my very eyes,” says Christy. “For the first three or four weeks, he had to have a feeding tube. Being able to eat and enjoy food again was a major milestone. Jared gradually regained physical strength — progressing from a wheelchair to standing to walking. “One of the physical therapists, Erin, really pushed Jared to try climbing stairs. We knew his humor was returning when he teasingly referred to her as ‘the Terrorist.’”

The trajectory of Jared’s recovery, while dramatic, happened in steps. Regaining verbal skills was more difficult than physical improvements. “Jared suffered from aphasia — similar to the ‘word salad’ that people experience when they have had a stroke,” explains Christy. “His speech therapist would ask him to name three fruits. His brain knew the names of dozens of fruits, but he could only express one or two verbally.”

As Jared’s memory began to return, the discrepancies between his past capabilities and his present limitations came crashing down. “I only have flashes from Shepherd,” says Jared. “But I remember one day vividly. In music therapy, the therapist placed my hands on the keys and told me to move my fingers up and down. I was incensed. I used to play Beethoven and Bach, and now here he was treating me like an idiot. That was the first time I realized the degree of my injuries and how far I had to go to fight my way back.”

Jared spent three months at Shepherd — six weeks in the inpatient unit and six weeks in outpatient treatment. Christy stayed with him for the duration in a one-bedroom unit, and Richard made the trip to Atlanta each weekend. “Mom was my rock,” says Jared. “I really didn’t want to see anyone but family. Mom would sit with me and watch the same episodes of MASH over and over again. I needed a calm and predictable environment to allow my brain to rest and heal. But there are moments of fun and laughter that I remember too. Like my mom singing Sade’s song ‘Smooth Operator’ and dad talking like Elmer Fudd. They made the best of the worst moments of my life.”

On April 19, 2014, the Johnson family returned to Roanoke, where Jared continued his journey toward recovery. “When I first came home, I was still using a wheelchair,” says Jared. “I was weak and frail from the weeks of being in a coma and months of limited mobility. My dad helped me regain muscle tone by encouraging me to do cardio and weight training.”

“One of the most distressing aspects of Jared’s injury is his visual impairment,” says Richard. “I’ve spent my entire career helping to preserve and restore my patients’ vision — yet there was little I could do to help my son regain his sight.” Due to the traumatic brain injury that he suffered, Jared has a significantly reduced field of vision. He can see out of the upper-right quadrant in each eye.

The Johnsons have never given up trying to help Jared regain his eyesight. While at Shepherd, Jared had a consultation with a visiting neuro-optometrist who prescribed a form of vision therapy and eyeglasses with prism lenses to help open Jared’s field of vision. Richard took Jared to a number of medical clinics seeking any possible treatments that could potentially help. While still classified as legally blind, Jared’s vision has improved slightly, and the family remains hopeful and optimistic that future developments will one day restore his sight. “At this point, I am thankful for the vision I have,” remarks Jared. “There are many people who do not see at all.”

The Long Road Back

In the fall of 2015, after being discharged from physical and speech therapy, Jared enrolled in classes at Virginia Western Community College (VWCC). “I was determined to go back to UVA and complete my degree,” says Jared, “but I knew I had to take it one step at a time. To be honest, I was scared to death the first semester. How was I going to manage taking classes without vision and with a brain that was still a little fuzzy? But my parents assured me, ‘You’re going to get this.’” Jared also drew strength from his faith. “When I felt discouraged and disheartened, I would pray through it.”

The faculty at VWCC was incredibly accommodating, allowing Jared extra time to absorb class materials and permitting him to take his exams orally. In two semesters, Jared completed four college courses, earning an A in every course. “It was a real boost to my self-confidence,” admits Jared, “when I knew I had the highest grade in the class.”

In the fall of 2016, after more than two years of fighting his way back to a state of physical, cognitive and emotional health, Jared was finally ready to pursue his goal of finishing his degree at UVA. UVA is an academically challenging school, setting the bar high for all students, including those with physical disabilities. “Initially, I didn’t want to use a white cane and make it apparent that I was blind. But, after my second semester at VWCC, I realized I could benefit from help from the Virginia Department for the Blind and Vision Impaired.”

Upon returning to UVA in the fall of 2016, Jared plunged right in with a full course load his first semester. Despite the rigors of his academic program and the difficulties traversing the hilly UVA grounds without eyesight, Jared persisted. “I practically lived at my teaching assistants’ and professors’ offices,” says Jared. “I worked with readers and scribes, taped books and recorded lectures. I would often eat once a day and sleep four hours a night just to get through my classes.”

Jared did far more than just “get through his classes.” On May 20, 2017, having completed the remaining credits needed for graduation and a few additional pre-law courses, with an impressive grade point average of 4.0 in the fall semester and 3.75 in the spring semester, Jared Johnson walked the lawn at UVA to receive his BA in psychology.

Looking to the Future

Jared takes the concept of commencement to heart. While the graduation ceremony marks the end of college, it literally means “beginning” — the beginning of a whole new way of life. For Jared, that new life has many facets.

“From a career standpoint, my next step will be applying to law school ,” says Jared. “I know it won’t be easy though. My overall grade point average is lower than it should be due to the first few years of school when I was so troubled. But I hope that I have demonstrated what I am made of, and what I am capable of doing, this last year at UVA.”

Without question, Jared has demonstrated yet another trait — the ability to overcome pretty much anything. Jared is considering disability law or civil rights defense law as possible options. “Both are areas I am passionate about and feel I could make a real difference,” he says. One way or another, there is little doubt that Jared will achieve his goal.

Looking beyond his career, Jared now perceives his personal life unfolding in a whole new way. “Before my accident, I professed to be a Christian but didn’t live true Christian values,” confesses Jared. “I had it all. My dad was a doctor so I wanted for nothing. School, sports, social life, everything just came easily to me. I was arrogant and self-centered — lacking in empathy and also a real understanding of what other people may be enduring. Then, wham. It was all taken away. I guess God saw that I was broken and needed to be fixed. I wouldn’t recommend this path of what happened to me to anyone, but three years of hard labor have changed me for the better. I feel stronger yet humbled by the experience. I now get it. I get addiction and how it controls your entire being. I get disability and how it can define your life — but only if you let it. I choose not to let it.”

Every moment of every day of Jared’s recovery was a struggle — to breathe, to walk, to speak, to think. And, while he may have diminished eyesight, Jared has emerged with a fresh, new vision of the world around him and a depth of insight to carry him forward to a bright future.

SWVA