Rachael Johnson, age 21: “I started to realize that I’m not an inspiration because I broke my neck. I’m an inspiration because I’m me.”

By Matthew Hansen / World-Herald staff writer

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sometime before dawn, as she lay helpless and broken in a ditch beside Interstate 80, Rachael made up her mind.
She couldn’t move, because her neck was broken. She couldn’t yell — when she tried, the word, “Help!” exited her throat as a garbled whisper.
The truth seemed inescapable: She would never get out of this car that she had lost control of and flipped twice while driving to visit a friend in Illinois.
She cried a little. She began to accept it, as her eyelids sagged and the promise of sleep and an end to the pain washed over her …
No, Rachael thought. Her eyes opened wide. No. She started moving her shaking left hand, excruciatingly inching her pointer finger closer to the car horn, trying to push it again and again even though her touch was as soft as a “butterfly landing on a flower.”
That’s when she made up her mind. That’s the precise moment when the second act of the remarkable life of Rachael Johnson began.
“It was like a light switch,” she says. “That’s when I switched from the most sorry for myself that I ever felt to feeling a little bit empowered.”

Rachael Johnson, 21, talks with new employees about her injury at QLI. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

The Thankful Edition
All around you, in towns big and small, people are quietly performing selfless deeds to make our communities stronger. The good life? You bet. Today we’d like you to meet just a few of these everyday heroes.
The Teacher: JJ Ventura
The Coach: Gannie Clark
The Builder: Steve Skidmore
The Volunteer: Win Finegan

Just look how powerful Rachael is today, nearly 2½ years after a car accident left her paralyzed from her chest down. She’s a 21-year-old student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, majoring in psychology and slated to graduate in 2017. She drives her own car and has her own apartment and in her free time makes popular YouTube videos — all things unthinkable on June 13, 2013, the day a trucker found her trapped in her car in that ditch after nearly five hours.
And the most powerful thing about Rachael might be how she’s passing that strength along. Most mornings now, she drives to QLI, the Omaha brain and spinal cord rehab center.

She’s not a patient anymore. Now she’s a QLI staff mentor. She spends her mornings talking to other spinal cord patients, listening to their fears and frustrations. She spends her mornings encouraging them to find their second act like she found hers.
“I get to see them take their first steps since their accidents,” Rachael says. “Sometimes I get to hear them say their first words. I get to see all that! This doesn’t feel like a job to me. It feels like something I have always wanted.”
It’s a funny thing, strength: Back when Rachael could run and jump and play intramural rugby, she felt like she didn’t have much of it.
She was self-conscious. Overly self-critical. She constantly worried that she didn’t measure up, that she would never be good at anything.
Now that she has a wheelchair and needs help with some everyday functions like showering — now that she can’t feel anything when a pin is pressed into her feet, ankles or thighs — strength practically radiates out of Rachael. It spills from her smile. You can hear it in her voice.
So where did it come from?
Rachael says that right after her accident, she had an overwhelming desire to get better for her parents, to assure her family and friends that she would be just fine, even as she doubted that herself.
She threw herself into rehab. She lifted half-pound weights and then 2-pounders and now 10. She taught herself how to use a toothbrush again, how to eat with a fork again, how to put on her own makeup. She taught herself how to use a motorized wheelchair and then how to use a manual wheelchair and then how make her own food in her own kitchen.

Rachael and QLI resident Stacey Deane of Columbia, Missouri, work out in the QLI fitness center. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

But gaining physical strength and regaining her independence wasn’t the whole answer, she thinks.
It happened slowly, a dawning realization that she had something inside her that other people don’t, or at least think they don’t.
She found it when she befriended other people with spinal cord injuries in the hospital, and then at QLI. At first they helped Rachael grapple with what had just happened to her. Then she started to help them.
She found it when she went back to UNO, found that her dread of asking a student to help her open a door slowly turned into compassion for the students who helped without her asking.
She found it when she started posting big-hearted and funny videos to YouTube. (“My (Quadriplegic) Makeup Routine” is one, “Benefits of Being Quadriplegic!” is another.)
And she found it when she got hired at QLI — hired because the staff recognized how much she helped other patients around her.

Top: Because Rachael’s fingers are paralyzed, she holds her mascara tube in her mouth and uses her wrist brace to hold the mascara wand. Above: She turns off a daily alarm on her phone that reminds her to do something that makes her proud. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

“I started to realize that I’m not an inspiration because I broke my neck,” she says. “I’m an inspiration because I’m me.”
I ask her about her proudest moment at work thus far. Rachael says it was when she helped a friend, Heather, who broke her back at 12. Heather wanted to be a dental assistant. Others told her it was impossible. Rachael helped her navigate the application process and the law and the logistical difficulties of working on teeth from a wheelchair.
Now Heather is in Lincoln, studying to be a dental assistant.
This is no fairy tale, Rachael says. There are days that are hard, dark, depressing. Who doesn’t have those? And not a day goes by when she doesn’t wish, at least once, that she could shed this wheelchair and skip around campus.
And yet, as I sit with Rachael inside a conference room at QLI, I realize that there is absolutely no doubt that the 21-year-old in the wheelchair is the strongest person in this room.
So I ask her: What can you tell me about strength?
“Strength is different things for different people,” she says. “For me it’s apparent; for others, maybe they are being held back by something that no one else can see. … What I have learned is that there is truly so much to be thankful for. I have learned that I don’t have to fear life, that I can change it, make it better.”
She made a decision inside that car, Rachael thinks. She made a decision to live. Really live.
“I view my own strength as limitless now,” she says. Then she sweeps her arm right to left, and I get what she means. She means everyone else can do that, too.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1064,,

Rachael heads to a psychology class on UNO’s campus this month. MEGAN FARMER/THE WORLD-HERALD

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