I want to believe there’s hope that Ryan Johnson can get back on the road to the medical career he wanted before the crash. Right now, it’s a painfully deferred dream, through no fault of his own.
Johnson, a pre-med student and researcher in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was driving his wife, Kristen Johnson, to her job as a nurse at the hospital when a car ran through a red light at Wolfe and Preston streets and slammed into their blue Honda Accord.
It happened in an instant on a Friday in November 2021.
The crash set off the air bags in Johnson’s car. It sent the car spinning across the street. It punched the driver’s door into Johnson. He was trapped and bleeding, covered in shattered glass. The crash fractured his arm, wrist and hand. His wife suffered whiplash and a concussion.
Witnesses called 911. Johnson heard the driver of the other car approach and say that he had no insurance. The man was shoeless, and Johnson thought he was inebriated. The man got into his car and drove off.
Four months later, Johnson wrote an email to me, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and City Councilman Ryan Dorsey to complain that police had botched their opportunity to identify and arrest the hit-and-run driver.
“After surgeries on my arm, hand and wrist, I have two plates and nine screws,” Johnson wrote. “I suffered a severe traumatic brain injury that affects my ability to speak, read and write, let alone fully return to studies. I have to attend speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, vision therapy, orthopedic appointments and primary care follow-ups.”
He was angry that the man responsible for interrupting his studies toward a medical degree had not been arrested. He filed a complaint with the police department; Dorsey raised issues about the case as well.
Several months passed before I heard from Johnson again, this time to report that the hit-and-run driver had been charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Despite Johnson’s frustrations with the pace of the investigation early on, police and prosecutors came through: The driver pleaded guilty and received a five-year sentence with all but two years suspended. Johnson credits two assistant state’s attorneys, Avrohom Greenfield and Aharon Wayne, with seeing the case to its conclusion.
The Johnsons have since moved to Houston, where Kristen Johnson has family. She returned to nursing there while Ryan Johnson continues to recover from his injuries and do research.
“Trauma can crush us with an unbearable gravity that we humans were never designed to withstand,” he told me. “Before the accident, I was a newly married man, a happy-go-lucky person. I was completing my post-baccalaureate premedical coursework and conducting neurosurgery research at Hopkins. After the crash, I wasn’t. … I was embarrassed and ashamed. After all, by now I was supposed to be in medical school pursuing neurosurgery. I wasn’t supposed to be the chronic patient, with surgeries, countless therapies and appointments. I am financially ruined due to lost wages and enormous medical bills. My original dream won’t happen, but a different dream will.”
A different dream?
Does that mean he’s given up the pursuit of a medical degree and career as a neurosurgeon?
“I hope to one day be able to attend medical school,” he said. “But, for now, until my post-concussive symptoms improve, it’s not a feasible option.”
In phone calls and a series of emails, I asked about the physical effects of the crash.
“My day-to-day is filled with resounding concussion headaches, slower cognitive processing and balance challenges due to post-concussive syndrome,” he wrote. “My left wrist, which was severely fractured in many places, required three surgeries.
“After a year, I have regained about half of the strength I had with no medical opinion indicating hope for significant improvement.”
Johnson is not idle. He’s a clinical research specialist at the Kenneth R. Peak Brain & Pituitary Tumor Center at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Just 23 years old, he strikes me as a mature, serious and thoughtful young man. I sense determination and a healthy forthrightness in him.
I asked if he had reflections about the past year and a half — the crash, the investigation, the resolution, his challenges.
He started with this: “Gratitude is the only way to go through life. During this time, I had an unshakable support system from everyone — my wife, family, friends, medical professionals and my church community.”
Then came this: “Life has zero guarantees. Blink and your life could be upside down or right side up. Each day, train your mind, body and spirit to handle whatever is thrown your way. There will be times on the mountain and in the valley so enjoy the scenery and the journey that comes with it. Don’t carry the baggage of anger and hate. It will weigh you down.”
And then I got this from the young man with the painfully deferred dream: “Life has no answers, only questions. How you live is the answer to the questions life events have posed. The first question when something horrible happens is, ‘Why me?’ You will never receive an adequate answer that makes the heartbreak more bearable or the pain any better. Focus on living out the answer. The challenges you’ve been given are meant for you. Orient yourself toward the improvement of the lives of others.”
So, yes, I believe there’s hope here.