Four years ago, a doctor at WakeMed told Angie Johnson her husband, Joey Johnson, would not survive the injuries he suffered when a drunk driver hit his pickup head-on in a pre-dawn accident on Garner Road.
Angie wanted no part of such negative thinking. Joey remembers a conversation he had with his heart doctor months later.
“He waited for my wife to leave the room before he said anything,” Joey recalled. “He said, ‘I’ve done this for a long time, and I’ve dealt with a lot of people, worked with a lot of patients. You and your wife are two I’ll never be able to forget, because that day, me and the other surgeons, we tried to explain to her that we couldn’t stop all the bleeding and there was too much damage and there was no way you’d ever live.’ And he said, ‘She got up and stopped us from talking and said we were wrong – that her God was more powerful than anything.’ And he said that the whole time she was right and they were wrong. He just said he really couldn’t get over that, that he’d never experienced that much faith in somebody. He said it just kind of stayed with him.”
Four years and many surgeries later, Joey Johnson’s body remains battered and scarred from the engine and steering wheel crushing his core, breaking bones. He lost half of his liver, his lung function is seriously diminished, pins and plates hold his pelvis together and loud noises can startle him because they remind him of the sound of the wreck that almost killed him. But the father of six and grandfather of four is able to walk, maintain his garden, hunt and fish and be the person he has always been during the 28 years he has been married to Angie.
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I became intimately involved in Joey’s plight for two reasons: In 1991, my wife Mary and I moved in next door to the Johnsons on Vandora Springs Road. Our children became friends, and I enjoyed my visits to their house. I was also working at WakeMed as a Eucharistic minister when Joey was admitted to the intensive care unit. I happened to see Angie in the ICU waiting room and learned about the wreck. For the next eight weeks or so, I made weekly stops at Joey’s bedside to pray for his healing; Angie was always there.
That first day I saw Joey hooked up to myriad monitors and IVs, I knew his life was hanging in the balance, but Angie never doubted her husband would pull through. Angie said God knew she would not be able to raise her six children without Joey by her side.
“I think God knew I couldn’t do it by myself and finish raising all the babies,” she said.
Later in the spring, when Joey was walking with a cane but getting better, a fundraiser at Angie’s Restaurant brought in $10,000 to help the Johnson family. Owner Angie Mikus opened the restaurant on a Sunday, and scores of people came to a chicken dinner to support the Johnson family. So many people showed up that the chicken ran out, and we had to go to the grocery store to buy more.
Joey was raised as a person of faith, but he says the experience of going through such trauma has changed him in good ways.
“There was a lot of dark days during that time, but there was a lot of sun-filled days too,” Joey said. “I’ve seen a lot of love and a lot of support from people. That was what was so overwhelming, honestly. ... I couldn’t imagine anybody going through that without support, family members and friends.
“It’s funny, people say a person’s heart’s only so big, and I find that’s really not true. Who would ever dream there could be that much love and compassion for somebody? I still have trouble sleeping at night, but it’s not because of pain or any suffering, nothing like that. It’s just mostly because of just being floored by people – people that I didn’t even know. When you have nurses and doctors and physical therapists that sit in your room and pray with you, that’s real touching. If that doesn’t do something for somebody, then you’re from another planet or something.”
Joey said Jesus was with him the entire time. “He never left me,” Joey said. “I would say I have a different relationship with the Lord now. It’s kind of hard to explain, but it’s almost like that now it ain’t so much that I know him. It’s almost that he knows me, too, if that even makes sense.”
Joey has slowed down. He’s only 50 years old, but he can no longer lift the 75-pound buckets of plaster that he once used to do expert stucco work. “It’s just night and day different than it used to be,” he said.
Last June, he did start working for himself again doing landscaping. He has to monitor himself because of his diminished lung capacity, but once again, he is able to provide for his family. He had what he hopes will be his last surgery a year ago to correct nerve damage in his right arm.
He says he has no animosity toward the drunk driver who hit him. The man served a prison sentence.
Joey can even joke about his plight now. When his family went for a swim, a little girl kept looking at all the scars on Joey’s body. Finally, he told the girl, “It was a bear.”
“Her mouth got big,” he said. “She took off running for her momma. She said, ‘Momma, it was bear. It was a bear.’ ”
Joey finally walked over to the mother and girl and said: “No, it wasn’t a bear. I was just in a bad car accident.”