LayLa Johnson had just battled her way to the top of a steep hill she had biked many times before and was preparing for the payoff – the adrenaline surge of “an epic downhill.” Then something went horribly wrong.
“It’s a hill you take very seriously,” the Idaho Falls Red Cross volunteer said. “What possibly happened? Not a clue.”
A friend who was biking with LayLa eventually doubled back when LayLa was nowhere to be seen. He found her crashed along the side of the road and called an ambulance, immediately realizing the severity of the situation.
LayLa underwent emergency surgery in Idaho Falls where she spent 10 days in intensive care before being sent to a hospital in Colorado. She would spend the next three months there, beginning the long, grueling recovery and rehab associated with a traumatic brain injury and a spinal cord injury.
She was told she may never walk again, a diagnosis LayLa isn’t willing to accept.
“I am going to walk again, and it can’t come fast enough,” she said. “I have a lot of movement, but a lot of weakness. With a spinal cord injury, it all comes down to the nerves, but what we have no control of is the nerve recovery and the nerve recovery is everything.”
In June she returned home to Idaho Falls, where she’s undergoing up to six physical therapy sessions a week including regular trips to Salt Lake. It’s all incredibly exhausting.
“I look at it as an infant becoming a toddler,” she said. “Now I understand why they sleep all the time and are grumpy the rest of the time. It’s enormous work and just something you think you should be able to do you can’t do.”
A disaster action team member — among the many Red Cross hats she wears — LayLa has returned to her Red Cross activities including working with programs including RC View, software the organization uses to collect information during damage assessments following a disaster. It hasn’t been the easiest road back — the software has changed in the past few months and LayLa is of course facing new hurdles.
“The information is all in my brain, it’s just a matter of telling it how to come out,” she said.
Normally LayLa is one of the first to raise her hand to head out the door to a national disaster, but that isn’t possible this time around. And that’s hard to accept.
“It’s another reminder of what’s been taken away from me,” she said. “Deployments are a huge part of my life and this would have been season five for me.”
But her own personal disaster has given her a more realistic perspective of what families face when forced from their homes by a hurricane or wildfire.
“The first few weeks after I came back, I thought a lot about this in a disaster context,” she said. “This is what the clients are going through when they just lost everything. They’re not in their homes, oftentimes they may not be with their families and basically life looks like nothing. This is a disaster on a scale of one.
“We often look at it that 50,000 people have been impacted by a disaster, but not as individuals who lost everything, and for them, it’s on a scale of one and it’s horrific.”
The things she’s learned on deployment watching others cope with tragedy has helped in her recovery, she said.
“I have seen enough disasters that I’ve known from the beginning that I really have to be an active part of my recovery and that I can’t wait for people to take care of things for me. And I haven’t.
“I constantly have to be on top of these things because I want to walk today.”
Since her accident in early April, LayLa has made significant strides. She’s now walking during her physical therapy sessions and hopes to be walking at home by the new year. She and her husband recently purchased a tandem bike — one which will allow LayLa to pedal from a recumbent position while her husband sits upright.
And if all goes as planned, LayLa said she would love to deploy next season.
“You just can’t dwell on the loss,” she said. “It just has to be step by step moving forward.”
LayLa thanks all her fellow humanitarians who have sent get-well wishes and donations along the way.
“I got a lot of cards from Red Crossers, even Red Crossers I worked with on national jobs,” she said. “A lot people reached out and that helped.
“People were fantastic for sure.”