AIKEN — Paige Johnson won’t say she is grateful she was hit by a truck while running. But she considers the life that came after “a gift.”
She plans to share that gift and a greater awareness of brain injuries like the one she suffered when she runs in the Run for Thought 5K race in Greenville in March, which is Brain Injury Awareness Month. Volunteering with the Brain Injury Association of South Carolina is also a new “passion” that has entered her life, even as other things have left.
Johnson was running on the side of Herndon Dairy Road with friend and running partner Vickie Harby on Aug. 30, 2010, when a pickup grazed Harby and slammed into Johnson at 45 mph, she said.
She doesn’t remember the accident or three weeks in the intensive care unit, so she has had to rely on others to tell her how bad it was.
“Every single person said, ‘We didn’t think you would live. We just thought you would die,’ ” Johnson said.
She was taken to Medical College of Georgia Hospital, where neurosurgeon Cole A. Geller removed a piece of skull from the left side of her head to accommodate brain swelling. When doctors spoke to her family, the news was grim.
“I may not walk again, I may not talk again; they needed to be prepared for that,” Johnson said.
But the doctors didn’t know how determined Johnson was.
That same night, as her parents slept and her husband moved his car, “I apparently unhooked myself from everything I was hooked up to and I got up and I walked to the nurse’s station and told them I needed a phone because I needed to call in for a day off work,” Johnson said. “I needed one day off.”
Actually, she needed more surgery.
Dr. Jack C. Yu, the section chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery, used a picture of Johnson as a guide as he rebuilt the right side of her face, using part of a rib to create a new eyebrow, pulling chunks of glass the size of large diamonds from her nose, and getting her jaw lined up perfectly.
She relates her horrific injuries and recovery as she sits on the couch with her 13-year-old dog, Maggie, by her side, sometimes even injecting a little humor.
When Geller told her they were keeping the part of the skull they removed in the freezer, she asked him, “Did you put my name on it?”
After he put the piece back, she joked, “My head was round again.”
After speech and physical therapy at Walton Rehabilitation Health System, she said she has fully recovered. But Maggie is one of the few things in her life that has stayed the same.
“Everything in my life has changed, literally,” she said.
She had been the CEO of Aurora Pavilion at Aiken Regional Medical Centers but left the mental health field and is now working at an Ann Taylor clothing store. She is in the process of a divorce and is living in a home she was moving into when the accident happened.
And some things are better.
“I’m happier,” she said. “My spirit is a whole lot happier and a lot more relaxed.”
For a while it took her longer to make decisions, but that, too, healed with time.
“I am pretty close to back to normal,” Johnson said. “Not quite as sharp as I was, but you know I can call that old age, too.”
She said she is blessed to have recovered so well when many who have had a brain injury struggle with memory and other lingering problems. That is what drives her to be an advocate for other patients.
“Now that I am working with the brain injury association, I have that passion to show people that, yes, you can survive and be more than OK,” Johnson said.
“You can be happy and productive and do all kinds of things that you might not think you can when you first heal.”
For Johnson, that is running. At first, she could run only on a track surrounded by a fence because “there was no way I could get hit,” she said.
Now she is back to running regularly and looking for sponsors to help with the awareness run.
So many people have told her God saved her for a reason. And she said she believes the reason is to help others with brain injuries.
“I do believe that my life right now is a gift,” Johnson said.