‘I Know How Far He Has Come’

'I Know How Far He Has Come'

When Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) addresses a Sioux Falls crowd this coming Tuesday, his wife believes spectators will definitely notice some differences in the figure before them.

He's lost some weight.


He speaks more slowly.

He walks with difficulty.

"As I tell my kids, when he walks it's not a pretty thing, but it's a beautiful thing," Barbara Johnson said. "His gait is a little uneven, but it's beautiful to see him accomplishing that."

Mrs. Johnson said this week that she and her husband are looking forward to returning to South Dakota to thank the state's residents for their patience and support as the senator has recovered from a brain hemorrhage.

"That's the big motivation to come home and say, 'Thank you,'" Mrs. Johnson told the Press & Dakotan in a phone interview. "I'm just thrilled. This is something that I didn't know if it would ever be possible in December."

The Johnsons, who hail from Vermillion, are holding a public "Thank You South Dakota" event at the Sioux Falls Convention Center Tuesday. Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Gov. Mike Rounds, Sioux Falls Mayor Dave Munson and a taped message from Sen. John Thune will be on the program. Other guests include former Sen. George McGovern.

Sen. Johnson, 60, underwent surgery for a brain hemorrhage caused by an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in December. The rare condition, which is often present from birth, causes arteries and veins to grow abnormally large, become tangled and sometimes burst.

In the months since the surgery, Mrs. Johnson said her husband has made great strides with his rehabilitation, exceeding even doctors' expectations.

When leaving the rehabilitation hospital, physicians didn't anticipate Sen. Johnson would be able to walk until December, Barbara recalled.

"I was pleased with that because I thought, 'Thank God he's going to be able to walk again,'" she said. "Now, within a couple of months, he has surprised everybody in starting to walk. He walks with a cane. He goes up and down steps. Everyone says, 'I hope you realize this is a miracle.'"

The day her husband suffered the brain hemorrhage was already an unusual one, Mrs. Johnson said.

"That day I was going in to have lunch with Tim, which is something I seldom do — almost never," she said, noting she works outside Washington, D.C. "Someone had offered me a ride in. I initially said, 'Probably not.' But it was raining that day, and I thought, 'I'll take a ride.'"

Minutes from the Capitol, Mrs. Johnson said she received a call that something wasn't right with the senator. It came as a shock because, only a day before, the senator had undergone a physical and all the tests came back fine — even the hearing test that Barbara had urged her husband to get.

Consequently, Mrs. Johnson said she was left wondering if he had been in an accident. However, she didn't have to wait long.

Mrs. Johnson was able to reach Tim's Senate office before he was taken away and got into the ambulance with him.

"I was really concerned because it looked like he was having something like a stroke," she said.

Amid the frenzy and confusion caused by Tim's sudden illness, Mrs. Johnson was afraid of how fast news of the incident might spread.

"I was petrified that my kids would hear about it on the news rather than from me," she said. "I stayed with Tim until they took him in for a CAT-scan, and then I ran out of the hospital to make sure family members knew. We beat CNN."

When the news did break, Mrs. Johnson said the hospital protected her and other family members and made sure they were comfortable.

"They immediately had security set up and knew all the right steps to take," she said.

At times, there were as many as 60 reporters armed with microphones and satellite trucks outside the hospital, Mrs. Johnson estimated.

Walking between rooms, the family would see pictures of Tim on the television screens. At first, Mrs. Johnson said she would stop and watch. She said it felt reassuring to see old footage of her husband healthy and speaking.

"Then, of course, you'd hear commentators talking, so we just stopped watching completely," Mrs. Johnson said.

The first few weeks were especially difficult, according to Mrs. Johnson. When Tim came out of surgery, he was responsive and looked good, but the surgery began to take its toll, traumatizing his whole body. The dye that was used for the surgery affected the kidneys, causing them to fail. His lungs began to fill with fluid.

"It was one thing after another," Mrs. Johnson said. "Things were really tense for a while."

In spite of all the physical changes and challenges, however, Mrs. Johnson said her husband hasn't really changed at all.

"He's still the same old Tim."

And it's his personal strengths — his tenacity, his sense of humor — that have brought him to where he is today, Mrs. Johnson said.

During the rehabilitation process, medical staff would ask Tim if he wanted to do an exercise one more time, hoping he'd say, "No," Mrs. Johnson recalled.

"But he always said, 'Yes,'" she said.

It's been a long journey — and it's still not over, Mrs. Johnson added.

"I'm so very proud of all he has accomplished. I know how far he has come," she said. "But he does have challenges yet in front of him. That's where we are right now. Tim is not done with rehabilitation.

"The brain is amazing. It's continuing to heal every day. The body is continuing to heal. He's getting strength back in his legs. His walking is still improving."

That journey has been documented by Bob Woodruff of ABC News for a lengthy segment on "Nightline" that is expected to air next week.

Tuesday's event will be Sen. Johnson's first foray into the public eye since undergoing surgery. In September, he plans to return to the Senate floor.

Over the last few months, Mrs. Johnson said the senator has been realistic about his limitations.

"We set up a home office in the dining room. He's got newspapers. He's able to follow everything on the Internet. He gets memos from his staff," she said. "He's been able to do a lot of things, but he just hasn't physically been able to be on the Senate floor as he would like."

Of course, in Washington, D.C., the business of politics never rests.

Amidst the support for Sen. Johnson as he makes his recovery, some have also questioned his ability to carry on as a senator and debated whether he will run for re-election in 2008.

"You do have the undercurrents. That's the nature of this world," Mrs. Johnson said.

However, the family has paid little attention to those nagging questions, she added.

"How can you focus on the few naysayers when there's so many people behind you? That would be a silly thing to do," Mrs. Johnson said. "If that was 5 percent of the people, I'd be surprised. To us, the feeling has been of a state behind us all the way. Certainly, we have not sensed anything like that from the other public figures in the state."

While Mrs. Johnson said she would leave it up to her husband to talk about his re-election plans, she confirmed he is definitely leaning in the direction of staying with his political career. More than $1 million has been raised on Johnson's behalf so far should he decide to pursue a campaign.

"I think the thing to keep in mind with Tim is that his intellect, judgment, sense of humor — those things haven't been impacted," Mrs. Johnson said. "Does he speak a little slower? Yes. Is that going to improve? Definitely. By early next year, I would think he'd still be making progress."

Returning to South Dakota, one issue weighs heavier on the Johnsons' minds than any other: They want to see their grandchildren.

"Our son just adopted two children, so we get to meet them for the first time," Mrs. Johnson said, referring to her son and daughter-in-law, Brendan and Jana, adopting two Ethiopian children. "The other three grandchildren are so little. That's one of the things we've missed so much through this. We're going to make up for some lost time."

Ultimately, Mrs. Johnson said she hopes her husband's experience will help both her and her husband grow.

"We've gone through it, and hopefully we're better people than we were before," she said.

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