Do you believe in miracles?
A Crosby family is hopeful that they are experiencing one right now.
Tom Johnston, 40, remains in a battle for his life after contracting the H1N1 flu virus in late October. Last Sunday, when it appeared all hope was lost, Johnston surprised everyone, including his doctors, and now appears to be slowly coming back from the brink of death.
"It's just so unbelievable," said Johnston's sister-in-law, Tina Holtzleicer-Draeger. "We're just speechless. We don't know what to say about it."
Johnston, a Brainerd High School graduate, is the son of Harvey and Pat Johnston of Brainerd. He and his wife, Tammi, live in Crosby with their son, Jayden, 10, and daughter, Addison, 3. He also has two stepchildren, Miranda, 16, and Cody, 18.
Johnston came down with what turned out to be the H1N1 flu virus on Oct. 28. The virus had made its way throughout the entire family, though no one else got seriously ill, and Johnston was the last one to get sick.
Johnston made two trips to Cuyuna Regional Medical Center's emergency room, complaining of a bad headache, said his sister-in-law. He was given medication and sent home. Doctors also believed he may have contracted a minor case of pneumonia. But the third time he went to the ER, an X-ray revealed his lungs were filled with pneumonia.
Johnston was admitted to the hospital and then transferred to the intensive care unit at St. Cloud Hospital on Nov. 4 and placed in a medically induced coma. In addition to being diagnosed with the H1N1 virus, he also was diagnosed with acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung condition.
Holtzleicer-Draeger said Johnston began to heal, but his medical condition was so fragile that they thought they would lose him several times.
"He was taken off his medications but he just wouldn't wake up," she said. "Just to move him was almost like a fatal thing to do. His body was so sick."
Doctors told the family that Johnston had possible brain damage from his ordeal. He was then transferred just before Christmas to the ICU at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester. On Jan. 2, Mayo Clinic neurologists told the family that his brain damage was severe and irreversible. They said he would never wake up from his coma.
Holtzleicer-Draeger said the family met, based on advice from Johnston's doctors and made the agonizing decision to not allow him to be resuscitated. They told his children that their father was going to die.
On Sunday, Tammi Johnston received a call from her husband's nurse, asking if someone was going to visit him that day. She had been staying in Golden Valley with Holtzleicer-Draeger and the two, nervous about that call, decided to leave right away to visit him.
When they got to the hospital, they were elated to find Tammi Johnston's in-laws there and to learn that he had been responding. He was awake and his eyes were open wide.
"We just buckled at our knees," said Holtzleicer-Draeger. "It was the last thing we expected to hear. It's a total miracle, it has to be."
According to the family's CaringBridge Web site, a nurse had been putting lip balm on Johnston's lips and asked him to "smack his lips." Surprisingly, Johnston did it. The nurse then asked him to open his mouth and stick out his tongue and he did that, too. A couple days ago Johnston was sitting up in a medical chair, the first time he had sat up since November, said Holtzleicer-Draeger.
"The doctors are completely baffled," she said. "H1N1 is pretty new and they really don't have a lot of research. We don't know what to expect."
Johnston was to undergo a MRI Wednesday and the family was expected to learn those results Thursday.
Family and friends are planning a benefit on Feb. 20, likely in Brainerd, to help the Johnston family. Johnston was the sole provider for his family. He works at ACME Metal Spinning in the Twin Cities, commuting from Crosby for his job. His wife had just gotten a part-time housekeeping job right before he got sick but had to quit to be by his side and to care for their children, said her sister.
"They're trying to make it every day like a lot of people. It's been really tough," said Holtzleicer-Draeger. "We're hoping for the best and enjoying the news of the last few days. It's been nothing short of a miracle."
To follow Johnston's progress or to leave messages of support for the family, visit their CaringBridge Web site at www.caringbridge.org/visit/thomasjohnston.
Holtzleicer-Draeger said a fund is being set up at a local bank for the family. She plans to update the CaringBridge Web site with that fund information and more details about the upcoming benefit when that information is known.
Those who have questions or wish to make a donation for the benefit may contact Holtzleicer-Draeger at (763) 531-2121 or email@example.com.
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.
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