Dennis Johnson - All Smiles Despite Many Challenges
Early childhood for Dennis Johnson often involved dozens of visits to various doctors. In fact, he saw more than 25 doctors before he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is a brain and nervous system disorder that can affect any number of areas including motor function, cognition, speech, and learning abilities. In Dennis’ case, the condition affected motor function and speech but these challenges did not limit his drive or creativity.
Engineers are known for their technical ability and decisive problem solving. Dennis often applies these traits into daily living activities. “The walker I use is actually quite unique,” Dennis explained. “I had a friend help me install vertical handle bars which are more comfortable for me than the standard horizontal bars. Plus, I choose a walker with a reverse braking system so that the brakes are engaged unless I squeeze the lever with either hand. This way, the walker won’t roll away when I reach for it.”
This type of ingenuity has always been part of Dennis’s life. In his youth, Dennis was fascinated by amateur radio and aerospace, so much so that after high school he enrolled in technician classes, which led him to California where his sister lived in Fullerton. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Engineering from Cal-State Fullerton.
After college graduation, he went to work for a well-known independent defense contractor. “It was a job,” Dennis laughed. “While working for General Dynamics, I went to night school and earned my Master’s in Engineering. I stayed there for six years and then moved to Rockwell International which is now Boeing.”
At Rockwell, Dennis wrote sophisticated software requirements. He also developed complex software animations to explain how spacecraft and satellites functioned. “The Air Force was my only customer,” Dennis confirmed. For more than 22 years, Dennis worked at Rockwell International where he says he enjoyed his career. “The opportunity to interact with people in the business and to work on important equipment for the government was quite rewarding.”
Unfortunately, Dennis retired at 56 due to health issues from his condition.
After moving back to the area with his mother so that he and his other sister could care for her, Dennis started having issues with his balance. “I would fall on a weekly basis.” In 2004, Dennis came to Marianjoy for Inpatient Rehabilitation which is when he met Dr. Mary Keen, one of Marianjoy’s renowned physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors known for her expertise in pediatric rehabilitation and cerebral palsy.
It was discovered shortly thereafter he had cervical spinal stenosis which required surgery. After surgery, Dennis returned to Marianjoy and his first day back, the hardware in his neck came lose and impinged the spinal cord. “I was more disabled at this point than I was prior to the procedure. I had immediate surgery to repair the hardware, and then returned to Marianjoy for eight weeks of inpatient rehabilitation and about eight months of outpatient therapy.”
Dennis and his therapists worked on improving his range of motion and muscle strengthening to help with his falls and to be as independent as possible. “The people at Marianjoy are great – they are compassionate and treat each person with respect and dignity,” Dennis described. “And Dr. Keen is fantastic.”
Dr. Keen was so impressed with the retired aerospace engineer that she invited him to speak to her class at Loyola University and also to the Marianjoy staff during Ethics Week. “She twisted my arm,” he smiled. “I spoke for about 10 minutes on the relationship between people with disabilities and the non-disabled. Communicating to a group is much different than communicating one-on-one.”
Dennis now resides at The Meadows of Glen Ellyn, a senior living facility, where he enjoys picking on the staff. He manages all daily living activities but meal prep and housekeeping. “I utilize assistive technology to help make things easier for me. I have a remote that is similar to keyless entry for a car that toggles the lights and the furnace.” As a hobby, Dennis enjoys surfing the internet and making videos of events at The Meadows. “If we have a variety show, I’ll film it and make DVDs for everyone. I recently purchased a Mac so that’s keeping me busy.”
His most recent visit to outpatient therapy at Marianjoy is due to muscle atrophy. “Last March I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I’m doing much better now but the treatment left me very weak. I like coming here,” Dennis smiled.” I’m hoping Kim, my outpatient physical therapist, will see me for 6 more months.”