By Jade Waddy
An act of heroism sent 17-year-old Lacy Johnson down a path that would change her outlook on life.
While on summer break from high school, Johnson was ejected from a vehicle she was a passenger in, after it lost control.
“I took off my seatbelt to help the driver try to regain control of the vehicle,” Johnson said.
The vehicle crashed and flipped three times. Paramedics treated Johnson and assessed that she needed transport to a trauma center due to the severity of her injuries. They dispatched Memorial Hermann Life Flight® and Johnson was flown to the Red Duke Trauma Institute at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center.
Johnson’s injuries were extensive. Her skull detached from her spine, which was also broken in several places. She had severe liver damage, paralysis on her left side, a collapsed lung as well as other internal injuries.
“My injuries were very bad, my family didn’t know what would happen next,” Johnson said.
The impact of the collision tore all the ligaments connecting Johnson’s skull to her spine, causing an internal decapitation.
“Lacy’s internal decapitation was extremely severe and life threatening,” said orthopedic trauma surgeon Mark Prasarn, MD, “There was a high risk for a spinal cord injury and many of these types of injuries are fatal.”
Johnson was placed in a halo to stabilize her skull and spine until she was able to be moved to surgery three days later. Dr. Prasarn performed a 3-hour operation to repair the torn ligaments and reconnected the skull to the spine with a metal plate, screws,rods and bone grafting.
After a month in the surgical-trauma intensive care unit (STICU) Johnson was discharged from Memorial Hermann-TMC and transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann for a month of intense rehabilitation.
Johnson’s rehabilitation included physical, occupational and speech therapy. Her therapy team started working on the basics needed to get Johnson back moving. They focused on sitting up on her own, getting in and out of bed and quickly advancing and making activities more difficult as Johnson’s strength and mobility improved.
Although the time at TIRR was challenging, Johnson had the support from her family including her four younger sisters who occasionally played a role in her therapy sessions.
“My younger sister would control my wheelchair while I practiced walking with my physical therapist or when we would work on my left arm movement, I would try to touch one of my sister’s faces to improve on how far I could reach,” Johnson said.
While at TIRR Memorial Hermann, Lacy had to relearn how to walk and was able to regain function and movement on her left side.
“When Lacy came to TIRR she was only able to move on her right side, so we focused on regaining sensation and movement on her left side,” said occupational therapist Yaronda Broussard.
“I remember when we worked on left arm movement in an overhead sling and she didn’t think there would be any movement,” Broussard said. “She saw her shoulder move and she cried and I just reminded her to take things one day at a time.”
Over time, Johnson had movement in her fingers and eventually full muscle activation in her left arm.
Johnson’s physical therapist, Kelsey Wilbur, worked with her on weight bearing to strengthen her body to walk again. Johnson progressed from relying on a wheelchair to move around TIRR Memorial Hermann to utilizing a walker.
“Lacy was ready to work hard from day one. She told me right from the beginning that she wanted to walk out of TIRR,” Wilbur said. “We started with the basics: getting in and out of bed, sitting balance, left leg strengthening and were able to progress toward standing and walking.”
On August 7, Johnson beamed as she walked out of TIRR Memorial Hermann, wearing a left ankle brace and with the help of a walker.
“I told Lacy when she left she wouldn’t need the walker and brace forever as she was still progressing every single day,” Wilbur said.
Johnson has continued outpatient rehabilitation therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Outpatient Rehabilitation-Memorial City. No longer in a brace, Johnson works three days a week strengthening her core and working on balance.
“Getting as much recovery as she did in the time she did, is pretty miraculous, A lot of people do not recover,” Dr. Prasarn said.
Johnson returned to school in October for half days and is eagerly anticipating walking across the stage at her high school commencement in the spring.
“I’m happy to be back in school but even more excited to get my diploma,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s experience transformed her outlook on life and she now hopes to become an advocate and speak to at-risk youth. “I can relate to many things that they may be experiencing and I just want to tell them it’s not worth it,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s advice to anyone experiencing a traumatic, life-changing event is to keep pushing forward believe in yourself and listen to your care team.
“I’m thankful for every single person I’ve met along this journey, my nurses, my doctors, my therapists, they have all helped me get to where I am today when things could have been very different.”