‘I Am Back’

'I Am Back'
Nine months after suffering a life-threatening brain hemorrhage in Washington, DC, U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson came home Tuesday to South Dakota for the first time.

Johnson's appearance at the Convention Center in Sioux Falls allowed his fellow South Dakotans to see his condition after surgery last December and months of physical and speech therapy.

But mostly, it gave the Democratic senator a chance to say thanks for the prayers and support he has received during his recovery.


The darkest days began when he became disoriented during a Dec. 13 conference call with reporters. He later became ill at his Senate office and was rushed to George Washington University Hospital.

At Tuesday's event, Johnson was wheeled from behind a curtain to the lectern, where he waved to the crowd with his left hand. He stood and read a 15-minute speech in a measured tone with his wife, Barbara, at his side.

Other family members flanked the senator during his time on stage.

Sen. Johnson acknowledged some slurring in his speech. But he noted an even

greater emotional struggle in finding the words to say thanks.

"Wow – you guys are a sight for sore eyes. It's good to be home," he said, looking out at the hundreds of persons who packed the ballroom and forced officials to open an adjoining room. "Thank you all for coming; it's especially good to see folks from my hometown of Vermillion," Johnson said, drawing applause from the contingency of about 100 persons.

The turnout and thunderous ovation drew the attention of an audience member who personally understands Johnson's struggles.

ABC News reporter Bob Woodruff suffered brain injuries from a roadside bomb

while covering the war in Iraq.

Woodruff has been following Johnson's recovery for a Nightline program that aired Tuesday night.

"I can't believe how many people showed up in this room," Woodruff told the Press & Dakotan. "It says something about this state. There is no partisanship here today. People are people."

Such emotional support plays an important role in the recovery process, Woodruff said.

"It's unbelievably moving," the reporter said of Johnson's progress. "His speech is better today than yesterday."

In his remarks, Sen. Johnson acknowledged the often-frustrating process, saying it has taken longer than he would like. He gave thanks to his doctors, nurses and therapists.

"In football, good progress on offense is often described as three yards and a cloud of dust," he said. "For me it seems, good progress has been an inch and a cloud of dust. I've learned to appreciate each inch, each milestone."�

Johnson noted the importance of South Dakotans' support.

"We have received thousands of letters and cards from people back home. They

touched Barb and me in ways I cannot describe," he said. "Many of these cards and letters decorated my hospital room walls, and some of the signed banners from groups of South Dakotans still hang in my office."

The support from back home provided additional will to move forward with the struggle, Johnson said.

"Your words of support and prayer sustained me and gave me determination and

faith. Your stories and prayers inspired me to keep fighting," he said. "From the bottom of my heart, thank you South Dakota."

Johnson committed himself to getting back on the Senate floor, perhaps as early as next week.

"Hard work is something in which I take great pride. So, let me say this tonight going forward: I am back," Johnson said to loud applause.

Amidst the serious remarks, Johnson showed his dry wit and self-depracating

humor.

"Of course, I believe I have an unfair edge over most of my colleagues right now. My mind works faster than my mouth does," he said. "Washington would probably be a better place if more people took a moment to think before they spoke."

Bryan Wellman, a neurosurgeon at Sanford Neurosurgery in Sioux Falls, watched the speech on television and said he thought the senator did a good job considering he had endured a life-threatening condition.

The neurosurgeon said Johnson made good strides during his recovery. "For what he has dealt with, he has done marvelous," the doctor told The Associated Press.

Wellman said it seems as if the weakness on the right side of Johnson's face is causing the senator's speech to be slurred. As he gets stronger, the slurring should go away, Wellman said. He noted that the senator had no problem with names and didn't avoid certain types of words.

While Johnson has not officially announced a re-election bid, he hinted during Tuesday's event at another run in 2008.�

"With patience, persistence and faith, I have fought back, and my will to keep fighting for you has never been stronger," he said. "I believe I have been given a second chance at life … and as I stand here tonight, let me say this: I will take that second chance and work harder than ever to be the best I can be for each and every South Dakotan."

Tuesday's event contained many elements of a campaign rally – political speeches, local bands and choirs and religious leaders offering prayers. At one point someone in the audience yelled out, "six more years."

Two Republicans have said they plan to seek Johnson's seat, state Rep. Joel Dykstra and Sam Kephart.

Kephart wished Johnson and his family well Tuesday but he didn't shy away from criticizing the senator's usually soft-spoken demeanor.

"It's not a time for quiet politics," Kephart said. "It's a time for building bridges and leading with your chin and taking risks."

Senate colleagues had raised $1.3 million for Johnson's possible re-election bid by the end of June. Johnson spokeswoman Julianne Fisher said campaign funds were used for Tuesday's welcome home.

Johnson was stricken a month after November elections that gave the Democrats a one-seat majority in the Senate. His illness raised the possibility that, if he died or resigned, Republican Gov. Mike Rounds would appoint a Republican successor and return the Senate to GOP control.

However, Tuesday's event was bipartisan in nature and contained well wishes from both Republicans and Democrats.

Rounds said Tuesday that, though the focus nationally was on the party balance, at home it was on Johnson.

"They talked about 'what ifs.' But not in South Dakota," he said. "We talked about Tim and his family. We talked about the challenges ahead and we prayed."

Rounds noted a large sign, covering much of one wall, collected numerous signatures and well wishes over four days, then was sent to Johnson in Washington.

"We wanted to send him a get-well card, but there wasn't one big enough," the governor said. "It said, our friend was hurting, and we wanted him to get well."

Rounds noted his bipartisan work with the South Dakota delegation, including

Johnson, on issues such as saving Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City from closure and the selection of Homestake Mine at Lead for an underground laboratory.

The governor spoke with Johnson prior to Tuesday's event. "It was great talking with a friend. It felt good," Rounds said.

Rounds noted the sense of family during Tuesday's homecoming for Johnson.

"The rest of the country doesn't realize our state is a neighborhood. It's 700,000 people," he said. "Today, we are welcoming Tim to our neighborhood. Our friend is coming back to the neighborhood. He is coming home as we always expected he would."

U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who lost to Johnson in 2002 by 524 votes, was out of the country but gave taped remarks. Thune called Johnson a valued colleague and friend, adding he was thrilled with Johnson's progress.

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., spoke about Johnson as a friend.

"He is working very hard to get back and is taking each step one by one," she said. "No one wants Tim Johnson to get back sooner than Tim Johnson."

Herseth Sandlin said she and her husband, Max, could tell Johnson was getting back into the swing of his Senate work when they were at the Johnson home for dinner. They ate the meal at the kitchen table because Johnson's papers filled the dining room table.

"Today, Tim, the celebration is for you. An entire state welcomes you home," she said, choking back tears.

Johnson's son, Brendan, recalled how the family huddled and prayed through the night following Johnson's hemorrhage.

"We asked, are we going to get our dad back?" Brendan said. "The doctor said, 'You already have your dad back. He has the same thought process, he hasn't lost his memory and he has the same dry sense of humor.' "

However, the senator has undergone a long, often frustrating, recovery process, Brendan said. "As Mom said, the process isn't always pretty, but it has been beautiful," he said. "The homecoming is not the end of the journey. But it's nice to come home. We want to say thank you for your prayers and kind words. We have a long way to go, but we have come so far."

Woodruff echoed those sentiments. "It's incredible. You hear Brendan tell the story of what faced this family, the fear of death, his recovery, and look what he has done," Woodruff said. "You get hope for people going through the same things."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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