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'This is just the start': Lovingston fire chief reflects on long, ongoing road to recovery

'This is just the start': Lovingston fire chief reflects on long, ongoing road to recovery

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Faith, family and friends.

It was those three pillars that helped carry Lovingston Volunteer Fire Department Chief Danny Johnson through numerous surgeries, repeated stays in the hospital and months of physical therapy.

“The blessings that my family, friends and people that I’ve never met they prayed for me, donated — that’s what got me here,” Johnson said.

When Johnson suffered severe injuries following a late-May motorcycle accident that nearly cost him his left leg and heavily restricted his mobility, it wasn’t a matter of if he would walk again, but when.

A modified walker capable of supporting his left arm which had been fused at a 90 degree angle sat beside the fire chief as he recalled the past roughly nine months and the journey that led to him again being able to sit at his desk at his Lovingston business the Blue Dog.

Across from his desk sits a donated scooter to help him traverse his workplace.

He had compound fractures in the upper and lower portions of his leg and his elbow had been “ripped open and basically beyond repair.” Johnson’s left foot, which also suffered severe damage, had only minimal repairs.

Johnson, a Nelson County native, was out of commission for several months because of the accident and several individuals had to step up to fill the void left behind in his absence.

Gradually Johnson has since resumed his duties at the Blue Dog and administrative responsibilities at the firehouse, although he said he’s eager to get to back to responding to calls like he did before the accident. He’s also been reelected president of the Nelson County Emergency Services Council.

Johnson has returned to working at the Blue Dog, a wholesale distributor for Meals on Wheels programs and senior feeding programs based in Lovingston, five days per week on limited hours on top of resuming duties at the firehouse and EMS council.

He also is constantly working on rebuilding strength in his leg and goes to physical therapy once per week.

Not long after the fire department established a benefit fund to help pay for medical bills or other health-related costs, donations started flooding in. That fund, as well as fundraising events, has brought in a total of just more than $30,000, according to Johnson’s brother, David, who is the fund’s treasurer.

“We’re grateful for how people in the community stepped up and how things were taken care of for him,” David Johnson said.

David Johnson added he felt the fundraisers were successful considering the larger context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A tumultuous few months

On May 30, Johnson was traveling with his son and two friends when the left side of his motorcycle brushed the side of another vehicle. As his bike went down, Johnson held on, continuing to grip his motorcycle until it came to a stop.

“It was a motorcycle accident going down the side of a car. There’s no good way to put it,” Johnson said.

He never lost consciousness, at least not at first, and even knew some first responders on scene. Johnson was transported via helicopter to the University of Virginia Medical Center and eventually blacked out once he arrived.

From there he bounced in and out of surgeries, often having two or three operations per week until about mid-July. Much of the June-July timeframe is a fog, Johnson said, as he described never quite coming out of a surgery before going under once again.

“A lot of June is just not available to me,” Johnson said. “It was a blessing in a way I didn’t remember all of that that was going on. I was living it but I just didn’t remember it.”

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, doctors’ major concern was saving Johnson’s left leg, he said. He also was immobilized for roughly a month and a half during the most surgery-intensive portion of his recovery. Muscle atrophy had wiped away most of the strength in the parts of his body that hadn’t been severely damaged from the accident.

Another surgery in September on the upper and lower portions of his leg and subsequent recovery period did stall that progress, however.

When he first started walking again in August, progress for the first few days was measured in feet, starting with a few steps in the room before moving into the hallway.

“I stood for the first time just a couple weeks after that using parallel bars in a therapy room, but I was able to stand,” Johnson said. “I knew then when I stood I said, ‘This is just the start.’”

By the time he came out of his bedridden state, the threat of losing his leg had essentially disappeared. He was first released from the hospital July 15 and went to rehab in Charlottesville until early October having constant appointments in the meantime. In September, he went back to the hospital for another surgery and has been doing physical therapy since he was released about five days later.

Johnson said even by his doctors’ standards, he has made quick progress, working each day to rebuild the strength he lost.

Sometimes, however, that progress has been slowed by his own ambition and pushing himself too hard.

“Patience is a big thing in this and I never had a lot of patience. God’s timing is not Danny’s timing. I would have been there already but His time is perfect, mine is not,” Johnson said.

Through the mental and physical hardships of his recovery, Johnson was free from the burden of having to worry about financial concerns or paying for his treatment as a result of the community’s generosity.

David Johnson, who took over his brother’s responsibilities at the Blue Dog with the help of their sister, Susan Johnson Baldwin, for several months, said having taken care of the financials took a large portion of the pressure off of his brother’s shoulders.

Danny Johnson said he couldn’t fathom the words that would adequately thank a community that carried him in his time of need.

“How do you repay somebody that took a worry away from you? That prayed for you?” Johnson said. “It just is beyond any means that I have of explaining or showing appreciation because you’re selling it short.”

With service at his core, Johnson said he never anticipated to “get it back one day.” But the most amazing part, Johnson said, was that his own need could be taken care of without him even knowing what was going on.

“I knew things were going on and people were praying and people wanted to help but I didn’t realize the totality of that until after I really got home [for the first time].”

The road ahead

Despite the fire chief’s rapid progress, which he said has even surpassed doctors’ expectations, he still has a long way to go.

“They keep referring to everything being one year since your last surgery … I’m focused on trying to be one year from the accident,” Johnson said.

Walking on a cane is the next step in Johnson’s journey, a feat he’s already achieved once on Christmas Day and one he’s hoping to accomplish again during the springtime. Ultimately, Johnson is hoping to get back to the point where he can run calls again with his crew even though it may not look the same as before the accident.

Johnson said he is mostly being held back by the pain he feels in his left foot

He underwent foot surgery last week to finally address those issues.

“I think it’s within reach. I think the expectation with this surgery is to move that more into a reality. His balance is there and muscle strength and memory is coming around,” David Johnson said of his brother moving to a cane.

Regardless, Johnson said every step he takes, whether that be in physical therapy or just getting out of bed in the morning, brings him closer to being back on his feet full time.

“Everything you do is building strength and you have to look at I that way. If you look a day or two at a time or even a week at a time you don’t see your progress but if you look where you were a month ago versus today it makes you smile.”

‘To serve again’

While Johnson’s motorcycle days might be behind him, his days of serving the community are not.

“My goal is to serve again,” Johnson said. “I served this community because I wanted to since 1989 when I joined the fire department. I just wanted to help, I wanted to serve, I wanted to do whatever I could do for somebody. ... I never thought in a million years that any of that would in turn be put back for me.”

Lovingston Assistant Fire Chief Derek Kidd, who served as acting chief for the department and acting president of the Nelson County Emergency Services Council during Johnson’s absence, said he was grateful to have the veteran chief back in those familiar roles.

“I was glad to see him back. I thought [Johnson’s recovery] was going to take a lot longer than it did,” Kidd said. “He’s impressed me with his improvement and he wanted to get back into things as quick as he could.”

Johnson resumed those roles at the beginning of the new year.

Kidd added while administrative and operational responsibilities typically are split evenly among chief and assistant chief, Johnson now handles a majority of administrative duties while Kidd picks up the slack on the operational side.

“I never had another option other than when I was going to get back on my feet. [God] left me here for a reason. He wasn’t finished with me and so I’m here,” Johnson said. “I intend to be whatever I can be for Him and this community just like I’ve always done.”

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