St, Jude cancer patient gives back

DeWayne Bartels
Dawn Johnson, a physician's assistant at Methodist Medical Center, checks the heart rate of Cory Brooks, 16, of Peoria. Johnson, a cancer survivor and former St. Jude patient, is running in her first Memphis-to-Peoria St. Jude Run this year.

Long before Dawn Johnson became a physician’s assistant in the emergency department at Methodist Medical Center, she knew something about medicine and healing.

She knows it can be a long and hard process to recovery from a serious disease.

Johnson’s realization began at the tender age of 9 when she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer.

While the cancer may be common, the experience Johnson had with it was not common.

It was a traumatic experience, but one that left Johnson with a deep reservoir of hope, compassion and desire to help others.

She is now about to embark on another journey, which will also be long and hard — the Memphis-to-Peoria St. Jude Run next month. 

Choosing to fight

Johnson, now 27, could look back at her experience as just a bad memory.

But, she does not.

The cancer she battled for years has changed her forever, she said.

She does not recall a very normal childhood.

“I did chemo. That certainly disrupts a normal routine for a kid. We had to go to Memphis on a regular basis. We were going to the hospital here twice a week,” she said. 

Johnson's parents, Neal and Lynne, she said, considered themselves lucky to be living so close to the St. Jude Affiliate in Peoria.

By the time she entered seventh grade, the cancer had gone into remission.

She began living what she considered a normal life.

But, that did not last long.

Before her school year ended, the cancer returned, and with a vengeance her body had not experienced in the first bout.

The cancer was aggressive. The treatment was just as aggressive.

Her body was left very vulnerable as a result.

She became weak quickly.

The chemotherapy caused multiple compression fractures in her spine.

The disease and the medications fighting it were so strong that Johnson went from an active pre-teen to a girl confined to bed, unable to even sit up.

“The second time around, it was much more frustrating,” Johnson said.

She had been given a brief taste of a normal life and saw it snatched away quickly.

“I’d had many friends who relapsed and didn't make it. The second time around, I knew what I was going through.”

It was a frightening time, a frustrating time.

“My body wasn't handling the chemo well ... It was really hard the second time. My family was there. My friends came to see me all the time. But, I couldn’t do anything,” she said.

And, Johnson was old enough to realize the diagnosis was growing ever bleaker.

“I was developing secondary infections. The only hope was a bone marrow transplant. The doctors were at the end of their suggestions,” she said.

“At that point, I don’t think I completely understood what was happening. I knew it wasn’t good. But, when they sent me home, I thought I was just going to work on getting stronger so I could have a bone marrow transplant.”

She did not fully comprehend how serious the situation was.

Even if she could become strong enough for a bone marrow transplant, there was no guarantee they would find a good match or that her body would accept the marrow.

But, Johnson said, she and her family were committed to the fight.

She was in for an incredibly painful struggle.

“I credit 100 percent the nurses, the doctors and my family. It was painful, but they got me up walking,” Johnson said.

“They pushed me harder everyday. They had to. I knew things weren’t going well. Memphis had done all they could. That’s when the people in Peoria stepped up.”

It turned out as she got stronger her younger brother, Christopher, then only 18-months-old, was an ideal bone marrow match.

On Oct. 21, 1993 — a date she recalls clearly — she and her bother underwent the transplant process.

Then the agonizing wait began.

“We had to wait for weeks for the results. We took it day by day, but never doubted it would work” Johnson said.

“I was very fortunate. It worked well. We thought it a miracle my brother was a perfect match.”

After the transplant, the work to regain a normal life began in earnest.

It took six months of hard work, but she walked again, and life slowly returned to normal.

Determined

Today, Johnson is training to participate in the St. Jude Memphis-to-Peoria Run and trying to raise funds.

“I’m great. I’m very lucky,” she said.

“I’m in the medical field today because of my experiences. They’ve allowed me to empathize with my patients. My experiences have had a big impact on me.”

She said her experiences have given her hope.

“You have to have hope. Anyone who faces a battle like this has to have hope just to get by everyday,” Johnson said.

She said giving others hope is a daily exercise for her.

“I have compassion for others. It helps me appreciate what others are going through that I see in the emergency department.”

She is also working on hope that she does well in the run.

For four years, she has been in the Peoria-to-Pekin run, but this is her first shot at the big run.

It is something she has dreamed of since her days lying in a bed in Peoria watching the St. Jude Telethon.

“I used to watch the runners come into the telethon. I was impressed by all these people doing such a thing for people they didn't even know,” Johnson said.

“I told my family, one day, I would be well enough do the run. I’m ready now. It will be hard. I’m nervous, but I’m sure it’s going to be an amazing feeling running into the telethon. I’m so proud to be part of this group."