Joey Johnson saw the straying headlights as he drove to work down Garner Road around 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 20. The collision near Peterson Street mangled his truck, shoving the engine through the dash and jamming the steering wheel into his abdomen. Several major bones broke. His liver was lacerated. He initially wasn’t expected to survive, and full recovery remains uncertain.
Yet a tidal wave of support did more to alter his outlook on humanity than the allegedly drunk driver that left him mangled.
As he gains ground in rehab ahead of doctor’s projections, a June 4 fundraiser at Angie’s Restaurant in Garner illustrates the type of support he and his family have received. Johnson and his wife have six children aged seven to 23 and three young grandchildren, but help has come out of the woodwork, he said.
Patrick O’Neill, who runs the Catholic Worker House of Garner, set up the event independent of the family. Johnson said his wife’s church, the Vandora Springs Baptist Church, also had stepped up since the accident, as have several others.
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“There was a real outpouring of support,” said Johnson, who can now walk with a cane. “I had people coming to the hospital that I didn’t even know praying with us.”
That didn’t necessarily jive with Johnson’s instincts. While dedicated to his family, he had a skepticism of people outside of it. He said the distrust was largely fed by professional interactions where deals were broken and payments were late or not made at all.
“Years ago I made a mistake and categorized myself as not a people person,” Johnson. “I realized I was wrong for so many years. There’s good people with good hearts that will support and stand by you. It took this to show me that.”
It started with his wife Angie, a staple in his hospital room for his two months there: “She wouldn’t leave me one time,” he said. The two met as children and got married in 1988 at their house on Vandora Springs Avenue.
“We’ve been together since I was 14 years old. When you’re attached to someone like that it’s hard, you wish you were in the hospital instead of him,” said Angie (no connection to Angie’s Restaurant).
“I felt like ‘this was it’”
Johnson’s memory of the Sunday morning in January has gaps.
“I knew something had knocked the fire out of me. I had no idea what happened,” Johnson said of the immediate aftermath.
He slipped in and out of consciousness, he managed to tell a woman that responded to the scene to get hold of his wife and he told police that he saw the other driver flee.
He knew he was in trouble. Part of his liver would have to be removed. He labored for breath and had a bleeding lung. Several bones were broken including his pelvis.
“I felt like this was it, this is the end of it. I didn’t see myself coming through it. I ain’t ever been like that,” Johnson said.
At the hospital before surgery, he told his wife “I’m really messed up.” He told her to take care of the kids – the euphemistic goodbye. Angie refused to hear it.
“‘No, I can’t take care of them without you,’” Angie responded. “I said ‘I love you’ and walked out of the room.”
Johnson’s concern was justified.
“I had one doctor tell me he would not survive it,” Angie said
Even renewed faith in people couldn’t erase the difficulty of such an ordeal for a guy like Joey Johnson.
The plaster and stucco construction worker liked hunting and fishing. He gardens and raises chickens at home. He doesn’t like sitting in front of a television, Angie said. He didn’t even like sitting in traffic, and he often went to work early in the morning to avoid it.
Facing an estimated 10-12 months before he could work again has been difficult. He already has missed some seasonal fishing, frustrating him. Idle living and limitations weigh on him. He had consciously avoided doctors and medication; they are fixtures in his life now. It’s taken a toll on his family, too.
“It’s affected me. At night I can’t sleep; I sleep three-and-a-half, four hours a night. I look up at the stars,” Johnson said. “When you have a bunch of kids, you want to make sure you can take care of them and provide for them. That’s been something real hard to deal with.”
But the active lifestyle also sped along his recovery, his doctors told him. Though slower than he’d like, he’s progressed from wheelchair to walker to cane faster than doctors expected.
Angie praised the medical staff at WakeMed, particularly in the ICU.
“They’re underpaid for what they do. People complain about med bills and price of medicine. Those people in that unit deserve what Hollywood stars make,” Angie said.
“No hatred here”
Police arrested Alejandro Ramirez-Castaneda near Hammond Road and I-40 at 7:20 a.m. His alcohol content tested at .13 – well over the .08 legal limit – even though time passed between accident and arrest.
Ramirez-Castaneda had been deported from the country three times for misdemeanors including assault and a prior DWI. He had been deported rather than prosecuted for the offenses. He now waits in Wake County Jail for trial on charges for felony hit and run with injury and DWI among other charges.
Johnson sees no reason to carry a grudge.
“There’s no hatred there, because that just ain’t the way I was raised. There was some anger in the beginning, but that just eats you up inside. I learned that a long time ago,” Johnson said. “I just hope this guy gets some help.”
He also said he heard Ramirez-Castaneda has children, and he feels bad for them.
Angie also said she didn’t want the situation to get political, but she does think punishment for drunk driving should be more severe. But she’s mostly thankful for the support her husband’s received.
“It’s just sad, all the way around. It makes you count your blessings,” Angie said. “You realize what good people in the world are.”