Radio-station KFOR news director Dale Johnson recognizes the need for relaxation. So, having missed the pleasure of motorcycle riding for many years, he bought one.
March 20, 2016, offered such pleasant weather in Johnson’s hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, that he decided to ride his motorcycle to the store. Johnson was proceeding through an intersection when a 16-year-old driver failed to see him and turned left into him, crushing his left leg at midthigh and hurling him 21 feet from his bike.
An ambulance rushed Johnson to the hospital. Several hours into his emergency surgery, his wife made the decision to have the leg amputated to save her husband’s life.
During his second day in the intensive care unit (ICU), Johnson asked a doctor what he could do to start rehabilitating. She replied that, if he could, he should lean on a wheeled mobility device and hop to the end of the hall.
He replied, “I want to go around the entire ICU.”
He did so, and he has been progressing further and faster than expected ever since. The hospital released him in 11 days. A goal-oriented person, Johnson applied that discipline to his rehabilitation. His second day at home, he put on The Rolling Stones, and, as he puts it, “busted my butt doing rehab.”
While his recovery sometimes frustrated him, its speed was remarkable. He was fitted for a prosthesis in May and returned to work in June. He became active in an amputee support group. In August, he took a long-anticipated family vacation to Peru and climbed the Inca temple Machu Picchu’s 400 steps.
In many ways, on a personal, local, and state level, Johnson has been influencing lives. His impact on his community began well before his amputation, and the people of Lincoln responded swiftly and generously when he was injured.
“When I hit the ground, they felt the pain,” he says of the 277,000-person community. Having lived and worked there for 32 years, Johnson has touched many in the area.
“People visited me,” he says. “They sent money—there were lots of cards like that. People would stop by my table to see how I was. Strangers would bring over pies and casseroles.”
A KFOR fundraiser in June 2016 drew 400 people and raised more than $30,000 for him.
Such community support, combined with the can-do attitude that fueled his quick recovery, prompts Johnson to view himself as a lucky man.
“I only lost a leg,” he says. “I can hug my grandkids. I can drive. I can do all the things I used to do, only at a slower pace,” adding that he could have had brain damage, spinal damage, or other severe complications from the accident.
Earlier this year, Johnson spoke before the state transportation committee regarding a proposal to loosen Nebraska’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law. He testified that part of the reason he could vacation in Peru so soon after his accident was because he had been wearing a helmet.
He met with the driver who hit him after returning from Peru. Feeling grateful and humble after witnessing the Incas’ engineering feats of transporting and constructing multi-ton stone temples, Johnson felt moved to urge the young man to rebuild his life.
“He was tortured by what happened, and I didn’t want that for him,” Johnson explains. “He didn’t deserve it. He didn’t wake up that morning and say, ‘I’m going to not pay attention while I’m driving.’ He just didn’t see me. So, I wanted him to move on with his life.”
After assuring the teen he was fine, Johnson said, “You hit the right guy, because I didn’t die. I’m not permanently damaged except for the leg.”
He believes the meeting helped the teen and his parents move forward.
Johnson is also contributing to his community on a broader level. Lincoln’s new fire chief chose him to serve on a stakeholder task force reviewing every aspect of the Lincoln Fire & Rescue Department’s operation to ensure its quality and to issue recommendations for improvement if needed.
Once a month, Johnson attends an amputee support group to help others who may have more trouble adjusting to limb loss than he has. He suggests that people with limb loss become as mobile as possible and accept invitations to get out of the house.
“You will breathe air and smell things and see things, things that will get you excited again,” he says.
Johnson taught himself to scoot up stairs, to transfer to wheelchairs, to lower where his clothes hang for easier access—to adapt his environment to his circumstances. He acknowledges that, because every case is different, not everyone can do things the way he has, but he hopes others can find ways to adapt.
“If you can modify [this approach], maybe it can work to a degree for you,” Johnson says.
Why does he push himself so relentlessly to labor for himself and others? Johnson credits his father with instilling in him a drive to overcome all obstacles. A farmer, his father worked every day from before dawn to after dusk, always repairing his farm machinery alone with materials on hand and refusing to ask for help.
“I think I inherited some of his determination to prevail,” he says.
Johnson sums up his approach to life with, “If I can’t, I won’t. But I never say I can’t until I try.”