BY NIKKI MEYER
If there is a local family who has had more than their fair share of brain-related issues, it’s arguably Josh and Becca Johnson.
Josh and Becca (Fiebelkorn), both Truman grads, just celebrated six years as a couple in February. They were married on August 6, 2016. Neither ever dreamed the challenges they would face in their first 18 months of marriage.
In July of 2017, Becca said she was at home one evening when, “It was like somebody flipped a switch.” She said suddenly, “I got so tired it was beyond exhaustion. It was the most tired I’ve ever felt in my life.” As it was summer and Becca is an art teacher at GHEC, she decided she would just go to bed.
She said after she fell asleep that it was 20 hours before she got up again. “I could wake up, but... I would wake up and just fall right back asleep. I slept 20 out of the next 24 hours.”
The time Becca did spend awake was not good. “I felt nauseous and very dizzy—I was bumping into walls.” Becca said she spent the next 10 days experiencing those symptoms. “I did have a headache, but it was not an excruciating headache... I thought I had the flu.”
Finally Becca felt her condition had gone on long enough that it was time to go see a doctor. On July 3 she met with a physician, who decided with the impending holiday and the length of time Becca had been sick that it would be good to go ahead and do a CT scan.
“I didn’t even make it out of the CT room,” Becca said. “The imaging was already up on the screen and I could tell something was wrong. The techs were pointing at the screen and my primary [physician] went into the viewing room.” It wasn’t long before Becca got the news. There’s a spot on your brain and it’s bleeding she was told.
Becca said she later read her case notes and found out, “they thought I was going to stroke out and have an aneurysm and die. I was a ticking time bomb—they were very concerned.”
She was taken to the ER to do an MRI. Becca wanted to call Josh and was told, “there will be time for that later.” She said she later found out Mayo Clinic in Rochester had already been contacted and the hospital was prepared to transport her there by ambulance.
Ultimately the couple went home and packed and then drove over in their own vehicle. A cerebral angiogram was scheduled for the next morning, and a repeat MRI was completed.
The angiogram, which was done by inserting a small camera into an artery in Becca’s groin and then threading it up to her brain, revealed no aneurysm. The staff informed her that she had experienced a spontaneous bleed, and that it thankfully was in a low-pressure vein, as opposed to an artery, “which is why I didn’t instantaneously die.” She was also informed that the bleeding appeared to have stopped by that point.
Becca now has a very slight facial droop on one side. What bothers her more, however, is the difficulty she now has with mental math and certain multi-step processes, like trying to follow a recipe. “If I read a step and I look away from the recipe and then try to recall what I just read it kind of goes out of my mind. I have to keep my finger on the recipe, grab the thing that I need, and then look right back because I’ll forget in that amount of time.” She still hasn’t pinpointed exactly what the function is that her brain struggles with, noting she can do other multi-step processes just fine.
Becca had a history of syncopal events (passing out) even from before her brain bleed was discovered, though no link between the two or cause of her bleed has yet been discovered. She’s had a number of episodes passing out since, with three repeat ER visits for imaging and scans, including another trip to Rochester.
Her last Rochester visit was after passing out, when she also noticed, “my facial droop seemed to be worse,” and she had, “kind of like that drunken dizziness feeling like I’d had before so they thought that there was a bleed again.” She said the imaging didn’t reveal any new bleeding, however, and she returned home. That trip involved her second
cerebral angiogram and third MRI.
“Most days I’m just fine,” Becca said. But the lingering effects are still there. Another big one for her, given her profession, is grading papers. “If something is in a packet form... if I flip to the second page I can’t remember what’s on the first page for a score. I have to write it down on the second page, or tell somebody Hey, remember this number real quick.”
As if having a brain bleed on the back of your mind—literally—wasn’t enough, the Johnsons experienced another life-altering incident six months later.
It was approximately 3:15 p.m. on January 19, 2018 and Josh was driving a work truck on his way to one of Helvig Farms’ barns. He wasn’t far from home, and though the recreation of the incident indicated he slowed down at the intersection of 250th Avenue and 230th Street, Josh failed to see and yield to the westbound Silverado headed his way. Josh pulled out in front of the truck and was struck in the front passenger corner of the vehicle.
“We’re just assuming the vehicle was in a blind-spot, like in the pillar between the windshield and the passenger window,” Becca said. “He crossed over and... both front ends got hit. It whipped Josh’s truck around so quickly, and because he didn’t have his seatbelt on he was ejected out the passenger window.”
Out the passenger side is a more accurate description. “He didn’t just go out the window,” Becca said, “he took off part of the door. He ripped the whole door—like from the top it was bent down.” She said she later saw the pictures and, “he completely destroyed the door because of the way he exited.”
Initially, Becca didn’t know the extent of Josh’s injuries. Josh’s boss called her at work at about 3:45 and said she needed to get to the hospital because Josh had been in an accident and he didn’t know how bad it was.
She later found out that the EMTs at the scene didn’t even recognize Josh at first. They looked up the vehicle’s registration to help confirm his identity once someone thought it might be him.
The EMT team arranged for a helicopter as quickly as possible. They were informed Mayo 1 was at least 40 minutes out. Becca said she was later told that Truman Ambulance Director Jessica Clow said You’re going to have to do better than that because he’s not going to make it. An alternate chopper was located and instructed to fly to Mayo in Fairmont.
Josh was taken to Fairmont where he began receiving blood transfusions and other treatment while waiting for the helicopter to arrive.
As Becca arrived at the hospital, she saw the helicopter outside. “Out loud I said That better not be for you, Joshua.” That’s when she got nervous. Things only got worse when she arrived at the reception desk and after identifying herself was told the staff needed his birth date and address. “That told me that Josh was not speaking then. That’s when... I started to panic.”
Becca got to see Josh briefly before he was airlifted. He was conscious, but not coherent. He was also intubated. “Josh remembers none of it, thank God.” Becca said. “He was just bleeding everywhere.”
Becca remembered as she said goodbye that Josh was wearing a “surgical cap” on his head. She didn’t know at that point that he had a traumatic brain injury. “I touched toward the top side of his head and all I felt was squishiness and I thought the whole top half of his skull was basically caved in... it did not feel like a skull...I about collapsed.” She later found out it was just swelling from his injuries.
When Becca arrived in Rochester she found Josh had been moved from the ER to the ICU and had about 20 different teams of people assigned to him. “Not 20 people, 20 different teams. There’s respiratory, there’s trauma, there’s blood, there’s neuro... He had basically all hands on deck to keep him alive.” She said she didn’t need directions to his room because she could see one with a mass of people outside and immediately knew it was him. “I knew exactly where to go. Nobody had to tell me.”
Josh was even more swollen then when Becca had last seen him. A doctor sat her down and went over Josh’s known injuries from head to toe.
Becca later posted on Facebook: “Josh was in a horrible accident this afternoon. He was airlifted to Rochester. He has an open skull fracture on his forehead, a baseball size lump in the side of his skull. Fractures down his back, possible neck fracture. Both shoulder blades are broken. Lots of scrapes. His right leg was so mangled all blood flow was cut off so they needed to get him in for surgery to save his leg. His upper and lower jaw are both broken. They may be drilling into his skull to release pressure. We are unsure about his brain activity other than he was making noise on the scene but didn’t make sense. He is on a ventilator and heavily sedated. Currently, he’s in surgery but I was told he will be here for quite sometime.”
A total of 10 vertebrae were broken. Several teeth and his sinuses in his skull were also broken. Becca said she was told that though his leg would get attention first in order to save it that they would also be monitoring the pressure around Josh’s brain and that if the needed to drill into his skull and do two surgeries at once that they were prepared to do so. It did not come to that.
Josh had three surgeries on his leg in the first week. His intestines were also scoped at one point.
Becca said that his brain injuries were a watch-and-wait game because of Josh’s lack of consciousness. “He was able to wake up on his own and open his eyes that following day... That Saturday, in the morning, I was talking to him and he responded really well to the sound of my voice,” Becca said. “He did better with me than with the doctors.”
She said Josh has no recollection of his stay in Rochester, but she got good and figuring out what he needs were. “I could tell when he was in pain or if he was scared. He seemed scared and probably in a lot of pain at first. He couldn’t speak because he had a breathing tube.”
Josh was also strapped down for his safety at that point. Sometimes he seemed lucid, other times “his eyes were all glossed over,” Becca stated. “So we couldn’t really get a good assessment on what he could comprehend and what he could understand.” She also said sometimes he would follow commands, like squeezing someone’s fingers, and other times he wouldn’t. His pain medication was also a factor they couldn’t control as it also could affect his behavior.
On Saturday, January 20 Becca posted. “Update: surgery went good for his leg. It’s two long open incisions that is temporary because they will go back into his leg with a bunch of metal at a later time depending on how everything else goes.
Last I saw him, he was shaking a lot like he was freezing. He was biting on his breathing tube a lot and when they ask him to stop he does relax his jaw. No other movement or responding to commands yet. They stopped his pain meds to get him to hopefully wake up enough so they can get a neurological assessment on him. Basically, they’re gonna see if he is aware of his pain or his tubes to see if he is aware of what’s going on. He will be in for many surgeries and a long stay. He may stay sedated for a few days.”
On the 21st Josh’s breathing tube was finally removed. Josh was able to communicate that he knew Becca’s name and that he was in the hospital, but he didn’t know what hospital or why he was there. Becca posted that day “His first reaction to the accident was him saying Did I hurt anyone?” Josh continually fell asleep or into unconsciousness and had to repeat the same conversation multiple times that day.
“It literally depended on the minute,” Becca said. “He would wake up and say something that would just be totally normal, and then he would fall asleep within 10 seconds. He couldn’t hold a conversation... then he would wake up and not know who I was.” She said when his eyes would close, “it would wipe completely away. He had no idea what was going on.”
During his ICU stay Josh was never left without another person in the room. Someone had to be called each time he woke up to evaluate and document him.
On Monday, January 22 Josh had a feeding tube inserted. On Tuesday he had his second leg surgery. Doctors decided he would need a skin graft on his leg. That night he spiked a fever and for a time no longer recognized Becca, insisting she was instead a family friend.
On Thursday Josh received his skin graft on his leg. He also had his feeding tube removed, and for the first time was able to remember something after falling asleep. His lab cultures showed no sign of infection. Josh was also able to leave the ICU that day.
On Friday Josh began speech therapy. Becca said it was interesting, with a very mixed performance by Josh. She posted, “He did pretty well with it considering, but has a long way to go. Very simple commands are perfect, but he doesn’t understand when you put together more than one command. For example, touch your chin is understood and followed, but touch your chin then your nose, is not. He tried writing for the first time, and that was so so... The doctor said he is ready to begin therapy next week to start learning how to think. Yes, learning to think. He is showing that he is thinking by pausing to answer direct questions but he needs to re-learn strategies to complete his thinking.”
That weekend Becca worked with Josh on things like practicing drinking, especially since Josh was hungry but didn’t want food. She posted that day, “I never fully understood what it meant before when people had a brain injury and had to re-learn to walk, talk, and go to the bathroom. I get it now. He understands he needs to go, but doesn’t know how to make his brain let that happen.”
The stay in Rochester continued to be a roller coaster ride. Becca posted early in the week, “Getting home is our ultimate goal, but it’s beginning to hit me how long it may be until we can get there. I’m trying to accept the fact I will at some point possibly be home without my husband. I’m also trying to figure out logistically how him being home is even going to happen.”
She said the stay was hard on both of them. Josh would get very agitated and angry. He would try to get out of his bed. He even hit Becca a few times. “He’s not a violent man at all, he’s never even been in a fist fight in his life,” Becca said. “But I got punched. I got yelled at. He was screaming for people to kill him. He thought everyone was trying to kill him... He basically needed a sitter at all times.”
Becca was told Josh would need to go to one of the highest level care facilities available in the state. She chose Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul.
Becca said Josh started to regain memories during his two weeks being in Bethesda, though he has since forgotten things about his stay that he used to remember. Each day was spent in intense sessions of speech, occupational, and physical therapy while the staff continued to monitor Josh’s overall progress.
When Josh left Bethesda, Becca said, “We were told were going to be discharged with a nursing staff person who would be there 24 hours a day. I don’t know what happened with the discharge paperwork, but that didn’t happen.” Becca stated she was mostly caring for him anyway since he cooperated better with her. Even though she was told he would need 24-hour care and she couldn’t do it all, “which I knew that, but we did end up going home with out anybody,” Becca said with frustration.
“I needed to get medical equipment, so I drove him home myself. We had to stop in Mankato and we spent an hour and a half—he had to sit in the car, because he couldn’t walk... He had to sit in the car by for an hour and a half while I was inside trying to figure out medical equipment, insurance, calling between three different facilities. I was a very angry wife just trying to get him home because he was in pain out in the car.”
Once the Johnsons finally made it home the struggle continued. Their bedroom and bathroom are on the second floor, and Josh was insistent on using both. Becca had to constantly help him up and down the stairs, help him with all normal life functions, do his wound care, and get him to therapy every other day.
“I didn’t go back to work for one week, and then I had to leave him home, and that was scary, because his brain was not healed enough. I was worried that he would go Oh look! Power tools. and start using them or that he would fall. He couldn’t get off the couch sometimes.”
Things slowly got better as the days and weeks wore on. Josh was spending three hours at the clinic doing therapy every other day, and Becca was working half days and being gone completely other days.
“He had to learn how to think, how to reason, and how to make sure that he can live life. When they talk about people having to re-learn how to walk and talk, it’s not always physically. I always used to think that if you have to re-learn how to walk you’re physically teaching your muscles what to do. You’re actually, for Josh’s situation, you’re learning how to make your brain think. What are you trying to do? You’re trying to walk. What do you have to do? Well, let’s start with standing up. He would not know what he was doing that quickly.
Stand up? Now what are we doing? Take a step? Well how do I do that? He had to learn how to think in that way.” Becca said that one day they spent an hour with Josh learning how to stand.
Other therapies included things like learning how to put on pants, or make toast. “They had a real toaster in front of him and real butter and no instructions. Can you make a piece of toast? And they would have decoy things in front of him, like things that didn’t belong in a kitchen. He was like Do I have to use all of these? And they were like You just have to make toast, Joshua.”
Even with all of the struggles, Josh made amazing progress. “He progressed so fast, he healed so fast he actually had to be on a heart medication because he was tachycardic, meaning his heart was pumping too hard. He was healing so quickly and he did not want to sit at home. He just wanted to get back to work because he is a farmer and didn’t want to miss planting season, which he did, but he just wanted to be back at work.”
Josh definitely will say that Becca has had the worst consequences of his accident, not him. “I’ve always said I didn’t go through that much during those two months. She went through it all, ‘cause she remembers everything. For me, I hardly remember anything from the first two, two-and-a half, three months of recovery, because I was so gone. To hear her tell me stories and to know I was that far gone—I have no clue. I lost two-and-a-half months of my life. I healed during that time, definitely, which was awesome, but I don’t remember anything.”
What he does remember from those early days was, “feeling alone. Not being alone, but feeling alone. Whenever Becca wasn’t there I was just losing my mind. I just wanted her there,” Josh said, tearing up.
Though he later required a surgery to fix his rotator cuff— “that was probably the worst part for me because I actually remember it,” Josh said—and still has a limp due to the damage in his right leg, Josh’s body has largely returned to his pre-accident condition. “He’s been back at work for a while now and you wouldn’t know he was in an accident,” Becca said.
Josh’s brain, however will likely never be the same. “I kind of thought brain injuries were fake, like they didn’t really exist,” Josh said. “I thought people just needed an excuse for things.” His accident has changed his mind on that, literally.
“When it’s real, it’s so hard to explain. It’s just little things you go through. It doesn’t go away.”
Josh often finds himself struggling to recall words. “I can’t find words anymore. I have to describe it and hope to God people can figure out what I’m trying to describe,” he laughed. Names of people give him a hard time as well.
And then there are his emotions, which like to take over without Josh’s permission. He said he went though a period where is was really jealous all the time. “And I’m not a jealous person.” Then he went through several months of struggling with suicidal thoughts. “I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, but I had more thoughts about that than I ever had before in my life.” He said he often felt like, “This world would be so much better without me and the hassle I’m putting people through.” He said it was a “weird moment” going through it all. He understood why the doctors regularly asked him if he needed any mental help. “I wanted so hard to get through it myself, and luckily I was able to, but I can definitely understand why someone wouldn’t be able to.” He said the guilt of being the cause of the accident weighed on him really hard as well.
Lately it’s anger that likes to run amok in Josh’s head. “It’s feeling very short tempered. I know it’s not real. And I know I’m not upset. So the people I’m around the most I’m always telling them I’m not mad at you. I’m not upset about anything you’re doing. I just can’t quite kick that one yet.”
Josh also can’t taste or smell anymore. “I can taste sweetness, and I can taste salt. I can’t taste much beyond that.” He said he does have memories of what stuff should be like and he can enjoy some foods based on that. But not fish. Josh didn’t like fish before, and he still doesn’t. He knows, because Becca had him try it again after his accident. “It still tastes like the lake it came from. That still came through.”
Josh said, “The smell is the biggest thing. If I smell something it’s like a highlight of my day where I’m like I smell something. I don’t know what it is, but I smell something,” he laughed.
If there was anything good in his accident, Josh will say it’s Becca. “I was so blessed to have a wife hat could take the time, and have a school that helped her, so that she was able to be there with me the entire time, because alone would be so hard in those moments. So thank God she was there with me.” He said she was his advocate. “She did so much for me that I couldn’t do for myself.”
Seven months after the accident Josh completed his last therapy session.
In January, Becca reflected back on the past year of their and all the family had been through. She wrote, “It’s been a year since Josh Johnson decided to scare the hell out of me and test my strength. The accident doesn’t seem real sometimes, more like a dream. Then I recall all those first moments and I know it was very real. Getting the news, saying goodbye before the helicopter, watching you open your eyes for the first time, helping you manage pain and stay calm when you didn’t know where you were or who people were, four surgeries with another later and one more soon to come, countless therapy sessions, and watching you bust your butt to get back home and working again. I love you, Babe, and I’m so happy you’re still here.”
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday
9:00 - noon, 1:00 - 4:00
9:00 a.m. - Noon
2018 Subscription Rates for 1 Year
Martin County/Lewisville - $40
Elsewhere in MN - $48
Out of State - $55
Please mail a check or use the button below to subscribe.