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Elizabeth Johnson

A Letter from Elizabeth: Facing a Tragic Accident with Strength and Courage

On March 8, 2009, Elizabeth Johnson was celebrating her 25th birthday and as was tradition in the Johnson family, was looking forward to a birthday dinner with her family. Elizabeth's parents, Paula and Dallas Johnson, were traveling to Ankeny from Belmond, Iowa, with her younger brother Seth and as a surprise, Elizabeth's Grandma Minnie was also with them. Elizabeth and her other brother Kyle, eagerly awaited their arrival in Ankeny, but as time went on, her family didn't arrive. Elizabeth and Kyle became worried and before long they received a call no one ever wants to receive. An officer informed them that their family had been involved in a bad weather-related accident and their mom and grandma had died from their injuries. Their dad and brother had both suffered traumatic brain injuries and were in critical condition. 

Elizabeth took on the role of caregiver and over the next several months and years navigated her way through the healthcare system and along the way, found her own calling as a nurse. The following is Elizabeth's journey, written from the perspective of a young woman who faced adversity and tragedy with strength and courage. This is Elizabeth's story.

Having had an accident of such great magnitude impact my family has taught me many valuable life lessons. Life is a precious and fragile gift, full of endless uncertainties and possibilities. Everything you know and love can change in a moment's time. It is important to share your feelings with those you care about and love because you may never get another chance. Our family has grown closer together and we have learned we are stronger than we ever imagined. 

Following the accident, we immediately had to educate ourselves in a time of great pain and sorrow and use that knowledge to help our family receive the best possible care. My dad and Seth's injuries were serious and their future unknown. We had to make countless decisions concerning their plan of care and knew their injuries would require months of rehabilitation. These needs would bring us to On With Life when Dad and Seth were both admitted on April 15, 2009.

When my family was at On With Life I felt a lot of compassion, encouragement, love and support. They cared tremendously for my family and saw me through some of the hardest times in my life. Dad had emerged from his coma just a couple days before arriving at On With Life and showed tremendous gains immediately. He was there just short of a month and worked on becoming physically stronger and adjusting to a new normal. Seth arrived to On With Life on his 18th birthday in a minimally conscious state. During his six month stay, Seth slowly emerged and worked towards regaining his independence. When Seth was discharged he had relearned how to talk, eat and could walk with assistance. His therapists had worked with him on schoolwork and he was able to return home to complete his senior year.

Throughout our journey, I came into contact with a number of care providers that made a powerful impression, including therapists, physicians and nurses. The first night my family was in the ICU we had a nurse, Tanya, who cared for my brother. The priority was with him, but she showed compassion and empathy for Kyle and me as well. She allowed me to sit beside Seth and hold his hand when I couldn't fathom the idea of leaving him alone. She hugged me while I cried and I remember seeing tears in her eyes and realizing in that moment she genuinely cared. I felt grateful she was his nurse and I  knew my brother was safe in her care.

Although Tanya was amazing, she wasn't the first nurse to ever show me the meaning of compassion and respect. That title belongs to one person - my mom. She was a remarkable nurse with a big heart - always funny, genuine, humble, kind and smart. Mom had a positive attitude and was an incredibly hard worker, always going above and beyond without complaint. She truly loved each of her patients and always did what was in their best interest. My mom was truly amazing and it was during Dad and Seth's recovery that I decided I wanted to carry on her legacy. I wanted to make an impact on others' lives like my mom and many other amazing nurses had before me. I went back to school and graduated with my nursing degree in August 2012.

Today I work as a nurse in the ICU at Iowa Methodist Medical Center and at On With Life on an as-needed basis. Nursing has provided me with an opportunity to give back and share my perspective with others. I know what it feels like to be blindsided by tragedy, to lose those you love, and to have others forever impacted by an injury. I know this feeling multiplied by four. My personal experience has given me a greater sense of empathy and while my family's situation is unique, I recognize and can relate to persons served and their loved one's struggles. It has been a blessing to work with so many  amazing families and I have gained several friendships I will treasure for a lifetime. 

My life has changed tremendously since my 25th birthday. Although good can be found amidst our tragedy, it still doesn't erase the bad.  I will never "get over it," but I've learned to adjust to the new normal. Today, Dad and Seth continue to make great strides in their recovery. Dad works full-time at the Belmond Post Office and farms our family farm. Seth can now walk independently, lives in his own apartment, has a drivers permit and is taking a college class. 

We don't get to  choose what happens to us, but we get to choose how we react. I see my family's frustrations and stresses and recognize the magnitude of their accomplishments, regardless of how small, and rejoice. I believe love is in the details and sometimes it's the little things that matter most. 

Elizabeth's advice for families following a brain injury

Brain injuries are hard and unfair.

I encourage families to maintain hope, celebrate each gain, expect setbacks, and most importantly not to give up. Be patient. Rehabilitation is a marathon and it's impossible to predict what the future holds.

Look past the negativity. 

People will unknowingly say insensitive and hurtful things. Having a brain injury doesn't have to define a life. You never know what someone with a brain injury is capable of and your attitude can be a big determinant in his or her success or failure.

Be a strong advocate.

Always stick up for what you believe is right. No one knows your loved one better or is more invested in their success than you are. Don't waste time on all the "what ifs." Know and accept the fact you make the best decisions with the information you have available at the time. 

Learn to let go.

There will never be enough time in the day or energy available to accomplish everything you want to do. Accept and ask for help when it's needed. Letting go sometimes means letting your loved one follow their own journey to health and happiness even if it's different from your own.