It’s incredible that anyone who has raised five kids and is now helping with her 14 grandchildren can survive with the calm demeanor that 56-year-old Tammy Johnson possesses, especially since she has been dealing with a C5-6 SCI since she was 14.
She and her husband Todd, 60, are doing what a lot of empty nesters do these days: babysit grandkids while mom and dad work. Lately, Tammy has been supervising three grandsons, ages 9, 7 and 5. Together, they’ll watch cartoons or a movie, eat lunch and play with Legos or video games.
“They really just need to be supervised,” Johnson says. “They usually bring their own lunch, but I taught the oldest one how to make corn dogs in the microwave, because he seems to think he needs them all the time. I’m like, ‘All right, you’re not mine, you’re hungry, so go ahead.’” It’s this easy “take it as it comes” attitude that Johnson used to raise her own five children.
Johnson and I grew up around the corner from each other in St. Paul, Minnesota’s “Greater East Side.” We played ball at the same playground, rode our bikes down the same streets and went to the same schools. Even so, the short distance between us meant we had different circles of friends.
One Saturday night, just days after the start of the 1972 school year, Johnson broke her neck while playing at the neighborhood lake. It was the talk of school come Monday morning.
“It was Sept. 16. I was doing a backflip,” Johnson says. “I knew the minute I landed that I broke my neck. It was so painful I thought maybe I had broken both my shoulders. At the hospital, I just wanted them to get the sand out of my braces and to not cut off my Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Then they told me.”
She is thankful her injury happened when she was so young because it was easier to accept, she says. She asked her mom at the time if she could have kids, and her mom thought she could. She wondered if she’d ever get married, but didn’t dwell on it.
“I had such a good support system with my family and such good medical care,” she says. “I didn’t have a hard time accepting it. I just did what they told me to do.”
After rehab, Johnson opted to go to a school outside of the east side where nobody knew her, even though our local high school was accessible. “I was really looking forward to going to Johnson High,” she says. “But I just felt I needed to start over.
Johnson embodies the east side, an area of people who have strong family ties, a great sense of humor with a strong dose of honesty: hardworking, resilient people. That resilience paid off when three years after her injury, she opted to have tendon transfer surgery, pioneered at the University of Minnesota. It gave her the ability to pinch, and would change her life in more ways than just being able to pick up a pencil.
In 1975, Todd Johnson was going to the University of Minnesota for business admin. To help pay for classes, he worked at the school’s physical medicine and rehab hospital.
“Tammy was admitted as a 17-year-old on the adult floor for the tendon transfer surgery,” recalls Todd. “That surgery and rehab are both extremely painful. You can’t take any medicine for it because they need to know what the pain is doing, as you are trying to train muscle and stretch tendons.” Each hand requires two surgeries. Johnson spent two teenage summers having the surgeries.
“I met her that first summer and I have to tell you, I immediately fell in love with her,” Todd says. “Tammy has this fabulous spirit. She is so brave, so positive and optimistic. She never complains.
“We’d do rehab-unit social outings, and there was a movie coming up,” he says. “So I asked her if she was going to the movie on Friday night. And she said, ‘Are you asking?’” They started dating and married August 1977 after she turned 19 and graduated from high school. They had their first baby one year later. Their first three kids are each one year apart; the last two, two years apart.
Besides being nauseous 24 hours a day for the first three months with her first child and needing weeks of bed rest for her last child, Johnson says her pregnancies were otherwise “normal.” But that doesn’t mean they were like everyone else’s.
“Three of my kids were preemies,” says Johnson, who is the eldest of five children herself. “My mom or sisters didn’t have preemies, and doctors weren’t sure if it was because I was a quad and had more bladder infections, which can sometimes trigger it. I couldn’t push, so the nurses held my legs, and gravity pulled the babies down. Then, with the help of gentle forceps, they just slid out.” And, oh yes, she had autonomic dysreflexia, which is common in higher-level injuries.
An Unlikely Nanny
Johnson needed little help after having her babies. “I was stronger back then and youth really helps. I’d lean over the crib rail, grab the baby, pull him or her over and onto my lap and prop a blanket under them. I’d roll around in my wheelchair with them like that, then plop them into their crib or car seat. “The tendon transfers helped a lot,” she says. “But it’s interesting how we make do.”
Until getting a power chair four years ago, Johnson used a manual wheelchair to help maintain arm and hand strength, pushing herself on carpet. Todd has been her caregiver since day one, and only a couple of times did they have someone to help care for the kids.
The three oldest were all in diapers, so they hired a nanny twice a week to help with laundry and cleaning, says Todd. “After a year Tammy said she didn’t want her to come back — she was spending too much time supervising her and meeting her needs.”
But their other “nanny,” Peggy Sue — a mixed breed dog, four-legged type — was with them for 14 years.
“Peggy Sue had this sense, she always stayed right by the kids, always sat by a door keeping an eye out,” Johnson recalls. “I’d say, ‘Peggy Sue, go down by the kids,’ and she’d look at me like, ‘Really? You don’t even want to go there!’ I’d just tell her, ‘Peggy Sue, that’s your job,’ and off she’d go.”
“Peggy Sue was so smart, she really understood my mom’s limitations,” says Matt, the oldest boy. “She would just jump in to help out. If something fell and my mom couldn’t get it, Peggy Sue would come and bark or grab one of us with her mouth and tow us in the direction she wanted you to go.” The dog also kept the kids safely in the yard and would bring them in for lunch by circling them and herding them to the door.
Toddlers to Teens
As with any other large family, the older kids instinctively took on tasks, helping mom take care of the younger ones. “I remember Matt and I changing diapers from a very young age,” says oldest daughter Janelle. “Basically, my youngest brother was my real life doll. I’d feed him, change his diapers and play with him. I also remember pushing chairs up to the sink or washer to help do dishes or laundry.”
“They didn’t want us raising each other, though,” says Allison, the middle child. “Obviously we all had our chores, but we had boundaries and we knew what we could and could not do.”
“We just banded together and helped each other,” says Janelle. “I see it with my kids now.”
“The only tool I had was a tension arm to pick things up or whack at the kids,” quips Johnson. “It helped to reach things, but the kids, they were my tools. Well, they had to do something!”
“The kids took care of each other,” says Todd. “They just loved each other and they understood mom’s limitations.”
“Matthew learned how to block the wheels of my chair with toys or dishes,” Johnson says. “One time he blocked me, took Janelle by her hand and out the door they went, walking down the street! They were three and two and I was like, ‘Oh, you guys!’”
Tammy called Todd, who raced from work, found the kids, and gave them each a good spank. They never did that again.
“But there was payback,” Johnson laughs. “When he was 7, Matthew thought he should hang onto the garage door and have another sibling lift it up and put it down, lift it up and put it down, until it got stuck in the up position and he was yelling for me. I just laughed and said, ‘that’s really too bad,’ and he was like, ‘Mom, it’s not funny!!’”
Johnson threw all of their lawn cushions under him so if he did fall he wouldn’t get hurt, explains Todd.
“And I’m hanging on for dear life,” says Matt. “And she’s there giggling in the background.”
As the family moved from house to house, Todd showed his boys how to modify the homes: they built ramps, installed lifts and widened doorways. Following their dad, the three boys joined the home improvement industry as professionals. Janelle is a homemaker and Allison is a home health aide.
When discussing the significance of birth order, Johnson admits that, like with most large families, the oldest kids set examples and the youngest are somewhat overlooked.
“Matthew got to the age where he didn’t want anything to do with his siblings’ silliness,” says Johnson. “So he told all his friends at school that he was an only child and his cousins were living with us.”
Later, when Matt was going for Eagle Scout, Todd suggested he do something about a person with a disability or maybe make something accessible for camping. “He just looked at us and said, ‘Yah, but I don’t know anybody with a disability,’” Johnson laughs. “They just didn’t see it.
“As a teenager, Nathan didn’t realize he could stay out late,” she adds. “When it dawned on him, he said, ‘Mom, why didn’t you tell me?!’ It made my life easier not to stay awake until he got home.”
When her youngest, Jason, and his wife, asked for some childhood pictures, Johnson sorted through her photo boxes and, realizing there weren’t many of Jason, included some of Nathan.
“I couldn’t even really tell the difference between the two,” she says. “And I thought this would at least even it out and they’d stop asking me. I gave him the box and he said, ‘Mom I’m not quite sure this is me.’ I was like ‘Oh, yah, you used to look like that.’ You do what you gotta do.”
Husband, Father, Coach
Todd helps with all of Tammy’s transfers and care. While I was interviewing the Johnsons for this story, Tammy was on bed rest due to a skin breakdown that had reared its head from a 14-year-old fractured tailbone.
She’d been in bed 24 hours a day for a month. Todd — who works full time outside the home — created a transfer schedule to prevent the breakdown from becoming a full-blown, infected pressure sore. Daily, he transferred her from side-to-side in the morning, at lunch, after work and at bedtime, making meals and massaging and stretching her back each time.
“My dad’s a saint,” says Matt. “He cheers mom and all of us on. He’s the best coach and the best role model that I could have ever asked for.”
In my latest interview with them, Johnson’s skin was healed and Todd had her on a new schedule of sitting in her chair every other day for a few hours. He said they would do this for two weeks to recondition her to get back into her wheelchair. There’s good reason for this due diligence.
“Tammy almost died twice because of infections and skin breakdown,” Todd explains. “We never told our kids, so not to worry them.”
All their kids are now married: Matthew, 35, has two kids; Janelle, 34, has five; Allison, 33, has three; Nathan 31, has one child with one on the way; and Jason 29, has three.
“For any young girl or boy who is injured, I say, don’t give up and don’t think you’re different, because you’re not,” Johnson says. “Your means of transportation is different, but you can do anything and everything you want.”
“I learned from my mom that it’s all about your attitude,” says Allison. “Why should you be limited to a wheelchair? There’s still life, there’s still happiness, there’s still joy. There’s still people out there who care.”
“I know that God has a plan for my life and he’s given me everything that I need to get through each day,” Johnson says. “He gave me all the physical capabilities I needed to raise my kids. Having five kids taught me to look at one day at a time.
“If you look at two or three days,” she says, “you’re going to pass out.”