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Struck by drunk driver, amputee prepares for Paralympics

by Kate Snider

Melanie Johnson was riding her motorcycle to her nephew’s football game in September 2004 when she was struck by a drunk driver. The life-changing accident happened just 5 miles from home.

“I knew it was really bad when I heard the helicopter,” Melanie said. “I remember thinking, if they had to call for the helicopter I must be pretty bad.”

Melanie broke several bones in her left hand, suffered two neck fractures, had road rash on her left side and her leg was severed below her knee.

She was flown to Borgess Health where she was placed in an induced coma for 4 weeks. She underwent 5 surgeries on her severed leg.

“They kept trying to save it, but they kept having to go in and take parts of my leg off because of an infection,” she said.

Eventually, Melanie’s left leg was amputated. As soon as she woke from her coma, she was transferred to Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital where she was an inpatient for about a month.

“They wanted me to stay longer, but I wanted to go home,” Melanie said. “I should have stayed. I needed more mental healing, I had more to learn and I needed to adapt to my new life.”

Melanie’s medical experience as an EMT combined with her mental state at the time made her critical of her medical care and rehabilitation. She said, “I think the trauma from the accident, the tragedy of it all, and my mental state at the time caused me to look for things and people to be angry at.”

Despite this, Melanie can’t remember a single day at Mary Free Bed where she saw a staff member in a bad mood. And she was looking for it. Instead, she found staff who were upbeat and encouraging motivators. She said, “I wish I lived closer so I could be there every day encouraging others.”

Melanie has adapted to a new lifestyle since her recovery. She described it as a transformation where the old Melanie has died.

“This is a new me. There is no comparison to my old lifestyle,” Melanie said. “I’ve had to adapt to a new me, a new life.”

Melanie grew up on a farm and has always had two or three jobs. She doesn’t like to sit around or ask others for help. Now, she has to ask for help and she doesn’t work full-time. She tries to substitute teach when she can, but she needed something else to keep her busy.

Melanie was watching the Bejing Olympics when she first heard about the Paralympics. She started Googling and when she saw one of the Paralympic athletes holding an air rifle she knew she had to get involved.

She said, “We always had guns and target practices at our farm, so that was natural to me. When I do something I do it right and do it big. I called the Olympic Training Center and talked to the Olympic coach. They gave me websites to go to and names of people to talk to.”

Melanie recently got a shooting coach, MSU’s coach Keith Hein, and she plans to compete in the 2016 Paralympics. She goes to as many competitions as she can. Melanie sits in a wheelchair to shoot but she has been fitted for a prosthetic leg at Mary Free Bed Orthotics and Prosthetics.

“I opted to stay with Mary Free Bed because of the great care I had there. I didn’t even consider going anywhere else,” said Melanie.

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