The Johnson family went during the early days of Covid-19, when the general public knew very little about the virus. The family returned with slight nausea, thinking it was food poisoning.
Johnson’s wife and children developed flu-like symptoms, while his nausea got worse. He began having trouble breathing and could not stop coughing.
Johnson was ultimately in the hospital for 46 days, 21 of which were on life support. At one point, his brother had already started planning for his funeral and doctors told his wife, Ashley, there was nothing more they could do to save him.
And yet, Johnson has since made a full recovery. The 6-foot-1 Mississippi native who once weighed 250 pounds lost 52 pounds during his time fighting Covid-19. He has gained 20 of those pounds back and also recovered his sense of taste and smell.
Johnson attributes this recovery to the power of community, prayer and overall, his faith.
“Doctors told me they could not give me a medical explanation for how I turned better,” Johnson told CNN. “Nobody can give me that explanation. It is in my mind and in my heart that the power of prayer is what delivered me from my death bed. I believe God left air in my lungs and kept me here on earth to spread that message.”
‘At least it’s not Covid’
The Johnsons went to Nashville for a sports conference, Johnson said.
During their trip, the family went out to celebrate the birthday of Johnson’s wife, Ashley. They starting feeling funny the days following the dinner.
“We were all a little nauseous. At the time, I don’t think people were putting stomach issues with Covid,” Ashley told CNN. “We thought, ‘We can’t eat, but at least it’s not Covid.’ Our first thought was we had a touch of food poisoning.”
Other red flags popped up, Ashley said. Her husband was tired and their 22-year-old son, Eli, a college football player, lost his appetite. Their 6-year-old daughter, Tori, started throwing up.
Johnson was in denial at the time, he told CNN.
“I’m an avid news watcher and I was watching how it was spreading across the world and into the US. … I subliminally told myself it was just a stomachache.”
But as his illness progressed, he became convinced he had it. He called his doctor and was told no tests were available so he had to wait four days for a test. Johnson wasn’t able to wait, though, and he was tested for strep and flu.
When he called his doctor again with reports of difficulty breathing and a consistent cough, he was told to go to the hospital immediately.
“I actually collapsed at the emergency room entrance,” Johnson said.
He was told he’d need to be on a ventilator. He resisted because of the statistics he read about many people not making it after being put on a ventilator.
Johnson texted his 20-year-old daughter, Sydney, while fighting with medical staff.
She said the text read, “I think I’m dying.”
He finally accepted the ventilator. His family didn’t know if he’d ever come back home.
Sydney — who did not go to Nashville with her family because she was on spring break — says she drove home that night despite them having Covid-19. The Johnsons sat together outside in the cold.
“It’s so weird grieving in that way, 6 feet apart on concrete,” she said.
“My husband is a fighter”
After the first eight days of being on a ventilator, Johnson said medical staff told his wife he had only a 5% chance of surviving.
“They asked my wife to sign a ‘do not resuscitate’ order,” Johnson said.
“I told them, ‘My husband is a fighter, let him fight.’ I begged them. I knew with three children, they needed their daddy and I needed a husband. I told the doctors I believe in miracles,” Ashley told CNN.
Doctors and Johnson’s family argued about his condition and whether to keep him on life support. A decision was finally made to keep him on it.
Still, Doctors prepared the family for his death.
“My brother had already made funeral arrangements, that’s how close to death I was,” Johnson said.
Because his daughter Sydney was the only one who had not tested positive, Johnson said they allowed her to come visit and say her final goodbyes. She had been receiving updates on her father everyday from her mother.
“In the moment I was so excited to go in there, it didn’t dawn on me that the reason they were calling me was to say goodbye,” Sydney told CNN.
When she arrived to the hospital, Sydney said she walked right past her father’s room and didn’t even realize it was him because he had lost so much weight.
“He was so frail,” she said.
She put on protective equipment from head to toe, and remembers wearing three different masks.
Sydney then made the Facetime call no one ever wants to make and dropped her phone in a plastic bag.
“It was just so surreal to think that my brother, my sister and my mother were saying goodbye through a plastic bag,” she said.
The family told Johnson everything was going to be OK, that he was strong and they love him.
Sydney remembers his heart monitor going crazy after that. Over the next 48 hours, Johnson would show improvement allowing him to stay on the ventilator.
“From the moment he heard his family’s voice it was just an uphill climb from what seemed like the very, very bottom,” Sydney said. “I think that meant he knew we were there and I think that has something to do with why he’s here today.”
‘This has been one of the most blessed years of our lives’
Johnson was unable to walk or speak as his condition improved.
He returned home May 12, just a day before his daughter’s sixth birthday.
“Took me another six weeks before I could walk on my own again,” he said.
Johnson underwent speech, physical and occupational therapy upon exiting the hospital. It was during this time his wife began telling him what she and the kids had been through while he was gone. She was quarantined with her 22-year-old son and youngest daughter for 21 days.
“Even with Covid, I had to really focus and be strong for my children and husband,” Ashley said.
But that’s when the Oxford, Mississippi, and University of Mississippi community stepped in to show their support, the family told CNN.
“I could never thank them enough. I had a hot meal outside of my door every day,” Ashley said, adding that people offered to buy groceries and pay bills. “We did not want for anything and I never had to ask.”
One of Johnson’s coworkers also started a GoFundMe for the family, whose medical bills soared to at least $1 million. The campaign was able to raise at least $40,000, Johnson said.
The stories of people praying for him are what really struck Johnson, though.
“Thousands of people stopped and prayed for me and my family, and that’s the lasting impression,” he said.
And yet despite having gone through such an ordeal, the Johnsons don’t look back at 2020 with disdain.
“This has been one of the most blessed years of our lives,” Johnson told CNN in reference to people apologizing to him for the crappy year. “It’s brought us closer as a family, it’s reprioritized what’s important in our lives and instilled our faith in humanity.”