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  1. Hillsborough

Joey Johnston: One year out, an anniversary that can't be ignored

Joey Johnston Jr. continues to make slow progress in his recovery from a severe spinal injury suffered a year ago in a diving accident. His father recounts their journey. [Photo courtesy of the Johnston family]
Published Jul. 10

It's an anniversary, sure, but it can't be considered a particularly happy one. It can't be ignored, either. It must be recognized, maybe for a bit of closure, definitely for a dose of perspective and certainly for a measure of how far we've all traveled on this unexpected journey.

One year ago today, everything changed. My son Joey, then 15, a kid of constant motion and athleticism, suffered a serious spinal cord injury. Immediately, he was fortunate to be alive. But a long, long road was ahead.

We're still on that road. It has been a year of unfathomable stress and heartache. At the same time, there has been personal growth and renewed faith. Overall, through all of those swirling emotions, we're happy to report that Joey is probably as independent as anyone could realistically expect.

Here's what really made a difference. He has a car with hand controls and drives everywhere — to therapy sessions, to school, to his part-time job — transferring into place, taking apart and reassembling his wheelchair, while executing the whole process himself. Everyone is used to it by now, but it still seems amazing the first time you see him get up and go.

It's a product of Joey's hard work, determination and downright stubborn attitude. When he puts his mind to something, he's going to find a way. According to doctors and therapists, those are incredibly encouraging qualities.

From afar, it's a very impressive picture. From close range, though, the daily challenges are enormous and difficult to fully explain. Just know that no day is exactly the same. It's a constant test — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. We have pockets of medical stability, sometimes followed by frustrating curveballs. There are dark days, but at least we know they won't last.

No doubt, this takes a village. And we have a great village. Family and friends have predictably provided Joey's foundation, but so many new relationships have formed and become vital to his progress.

We must salute everyone who has helped with Joey's care — from Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta to Tampa General Hospital to Stay in Step, the facility where he currently undergoes therapy. The world-class Shepherd Center, particularly, trained him properly and got him in the right mindset for physical progress.

Leaving Shepherd and returning to Tampa in November was more difficult than we could have imagined. You'd think coming home would be awesome. But we were without the protective bubble and back in a different sort of home, where there were reminders of things that were no longer possible. The adjustment to a new normal remains a work in progress.

We are forever grateful, though, for the support of our community. Three times a week for a few months, we received home-cooked meals through a rotation of volunteers. Lawn care was taken care of. Joey's friends got him out almost every day.

Everyone at Alonso High School has been so helpful and accommodating. Joey's baseball teammates spearheaded a car wash that raised nearly $6,000 in just a few hours — a record likely never to be equaled at our Westchase 7-Eleven — and kept him engaged during the season. A ramp was built to the baseball dugout, allowing him to be with his buddies during games.

Joey eased back into school with three classes in the second semester. Between online work and more of a full load in 2019-20, he should be on track to graduate with his 2021 class.

Joey, who loved going around the neighborhood on his bicycle, will eventually get a hand cycle, thanks to the generosity of our former colleagues and forever friends from the Tampa Tribune. During an alumni gathering, nearly $4,000 was raised, more than enough to get Joey on the road.

We remain so grateful for Joey's summer job at the Y. What a blessing. And what a great, fun environment of young people and kids. It's a wonderful thing for any teenager to experience.

Other things that happened in the past year almost seem surreal in retrospect.

Did Rays infielder Daniel Robertson really hit a walk-off grand slam to beat the Marlins, then show up in Joey's hospital room about 90 minutes later? Did he really hit another homer against the Yankees the following night, while flashing his "Prayers for Joey'' bracelet for the television cameras?

Did we really spend a weekend with Tim Tebow at the Alabama-Tennessee game with a private dinner and backstage passes to the SEC Nation TV set?

Did we really get whisked to Arizona for spring training with Joe Maddon's Chicago Cubs, having an enormous behind-the-scenes experience that would've been a lifetime highlight for any Cubs fan?

Yes, all of that really happened. It got plenty of attention. But it wasn't the foundation. The best parts have been the enduring friendships, the small acts of kindness, the selflessness shown by so many.

In the past year, Joey has gained tremendous function and strength in his upper body. We are hopeful of a full recovery, but spinal cord injuries are complicated and unpredictable. After just a year, Joey's independence has surpassed everyone's predictions, so we are extremely grateful for that.

(Small parenthetical addition: According to the Shepherd Center, spinal cord injuries spike each summer due to diving accidents, usually by young males. If you are thinking about diving into any body of water, DON'T DO IT. EVER. Accidents happen in daily life, of course, and life is meant to be lived, but why take a chance? Don't dive. If you have a trampoline in the backyard, you might rethink that. And if you feel the need to climb on your roof to make a repair or hang Christmas lights, please don't).

Navigating these complications is difficult for anyone, let alone a 16-year-old boy. So it's day by day, one foot in front of the other. We all need to keep getting up and showing up. We don't know what tomorrow holds, but we know who holds tomorrow for all of us.

It's interesting how much your mind is tested. It's a constant reminder of what's really important. What is happiness anyway? Is it defined by your ability to walk? If so, why are there so many miserable people who can walk?

Happiness, we think, means having a purpose. From Day One to Day 365, we have felt this accident will ultimately reveal Joey's purpose and hopefully lead to a soul-saving existence. He can't fathom how much he already has inspired others. With simply a good attitude and a smile, he can get things done. With God's help, he will continue on this path and live his best life.

That's the biggest takeaway we want for him, for us and for everyone on this anniversary.

Follow Joey Johnston's progress at www.facebook.com/prayersforjoeyjohnston

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