It’s impossible not to smile when talking with American International College physical therapy student Dan Johnson and his father Thomas. There’s a genuineness to them that you don’t typically see when a father and son sit down together to talk about the personal details of their lives and the relationship they’ve established with each other. It’s a relationship that clearly goes beyond father and son—they talk and joke like two old friends who have built a connection based on love, respect, and the knowledge that each day is a gift to be fully appreciated.
To understand where the strength of that bond comes from, you have to go back almost 30 years, to the afternoon of September 29, 1979. On that day, when Thomas was a 17-year-old student and football standout at Springfield’s Classical High School (closed in 1986, it was only two miles down State Street from the AIC campus), his life changed in a swift and terrifying instant.
“I was just sitting on the hood of a car,” Thomas begins. “I wasn’t doing anything stupid or showing off. Nothing like that. But the driver thought it would be funny to take off, to see if a jock could hang on as he gunned it. The doctors later told me that my head hit the cement curbing at sixty miles per hour. I was in a coma for two and half months.”
Thomas’ ordeal becomes even more astonishing as he recounts the details of what he endured in the aftermath of the accident. One month into his coma, doctors informed his parents that they had done all they could for him medically, and that he was now “in the hands of superior beings.” Their prognosis offered a few possible outcomes: Thomas would die from his injuries; he would live but have no mental functioning for the rest of his life; or he would be mentally disabled to the extent that he would never be able to care for himself. Which, of course, begs the question: How was he able to not only survive his injuries, but go on to lead a full, healthy life?
“I’m a bit of a medical miracle,” he admits. “The doctors think it had something to do with my physical conditioning. At the time of the accident, I was a top football recruit with several scholarship offers from across the country. I lifted weights, I ran, I was in incredible physical shape. That probably helped pull me through.”
At the time of the accident, Thomas was 6’1″ and weighed 197 pounds; he emerged from his coma at almost 6’3″ and 136 pounds. Paralyzed and confined to the hospital for the first six months of his recovery, Thomas had all of the symptoms of a person who had suffered from a severe stroke. Over the next five years, he would go through intense clinical physical therapy that would help him relearn basic skills, including eating, writing, tying his shoes, and, after a few years, walking, which his doctors told him he would never be able to do again.
Thomas Johnson, however, is not the type of person to be told that he can’t do something. Not only would he relearn to walk, he would go on to get married, have two sons, and work as a contract administrator for the Department of Defense. He overcame his accident to such an extent that by the time he had his second son, Dan, his remaining symptoms had simply become a routine part of his everyday life.
“Growing up, I never really noticed anything out of the ordinary about my dad,” says Dan, now in his second year of AIC’s doctor of physical therapy (DPT) program. “When I was a kid, I would walk with him everywhere, and sometimes I would walk with a limp, sort of mimicking the one that he has. But it wasn’t for any reason other than he was my dad and I wanted to be like him.”
As he got older, however, Dan began to better understand his father’s history, and the role that physical therapy played in his recovery. Dan’s love of sports also helped, as he would always encourage his father to join him in various activities, including basketball. Dan’s love of the game would lead him to Westfield State, where he played four years for the Owls, captaining his team to the 2015 Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference championship, the first in the program’s history.
“I studied sports medicine for my undergraduate degree,” says Dan. “I thought I would maybe be an athletic trainer, but after seeing the trainers’ schedule when I was playing basketball, the field didn’t really appeal to me. Then I did an internship with a physical therapy professor from Westfield State, Patrick Carley, which was at the Ludlow Jail. I saw how the profession worked, and how helpful it was to people. I had already seen how physical therapy helped give someone a life back who wasn’t supposed to have one, so things started to fall into place.”
Ironically, Thomas had already been at AIC for two years at that point. Students at his gym had put him into contact with AIC professor of physical therapy, Gail Stern, who invited Thomas to come to a walking clinic so that students could observe him. Thomas has continued these visits ever since, coming to AIC for gait and neurology clinics throughout the school year. For Dan, the existing AIC connection made the choice easy when he decided that he wanted to pursue a graduate degree.
“Coming to AIC made perfect sense for me,” Dan says. “I wanted to stay in the area, my dad was already doing work here, and I loved the program. It’s been an amazing experience.” Though he’s still considering the specialty he wants to focus on, he says that neurology is a definite possibility, as it would allow him to help patients similar to his father.
“My dad is a warrior. He’s never given up; he’s always been a fighter. To be able to help him and people like him, that would really be a dream come true.”
When his son says these words, Thomas smiles and takes a deep breath. “I’ve had such a great life. I have two amazing sons—one a lawyer down in Baltimore and one a doctorate student in physical therapy. I have two wonderful grandkids. My ex-wife is my best friend. I go to the gym every day. I’m always going to keep improving, I can guarantee you that. And I’m going to remain grateful for each and every day.”
-By Michael Reid
Featured Photo: (L-R) Thomas and Dan Johnson ’18