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Nothing sure but pain

A mother stays by her son after a paralyzing injury alters their lives.

Published June 10, 2007

Lisa Johnson rubs the temples of Antonio "Tony" Dowels after he complained of pain in his head at the beginning of a therapy session. Johnson hardly leaves Tony's side since he was brought to the hospital.
[Skip O'Rourke | Times]
[Skip O'Rourke Times]
Antonio Tony Dowels works with Christina Potter MSPT on an exercise where Tony has to make contact with a balloon that is tapped toward him. Dowels a standout athlete and student at Riverview High School got into a car accident that left him with a complete spinal cord injury.

TAMPA - Lisa Johnson can still feel the cold panic of the hospital waiting room. Her son was on the operating table, the doctors said. She would have to wait to see him, and he wouldn't be the same. He had been pinned in a car under a semitrailer truck for two hours, they told her. During a long drive home after a track meet, Tony nodded off at the wheel on U.S. 301. He was lucky to be alive. He had broken his neck, and couldn't feel his legs, the legs she always knew would take him places. Lisa didn't hear all the details. She just sat and cried.

At that moment a new life began. Home is Room 313 in Tampa General Hospital Rehabilitation Center. She takes showers in a handicapped stall, after she's already gotten wet bathing her 17-year-old son. Meals are hospital cafeteria food, but her appetite is gone. She's lost 10 pounds and stopped working at a preschool and attending church three days a week.

Her old routine has vanished. In its place is a new one, filled with uncertainty about a future she once saw so vividly.

* * *

Lisa Johnson has wanted two things in her 33 years. She wanted to start a day care center and hair salon. And she wanted her oldest son, Antonio "Tony" Dowels, to have the opportunities that she never got. Tony, she thought, would go on from Riverview High School to play college football, maybe even go pro.

She started thinking about sports when Tony was born, said Lisa's mother, Marie Murillo. Lisa held the husky baby and told everyone, "That's going to be my little football player."

Once, it was what Lisa wanted for herself. College basketball teams eyed her from the moment the rebellious tomboy stepped onto the court at Plant High School. But at age 16, she ended up in a juvenile detention center on a drug-related charge. A routine exam there found that she was pregnant. That baby was Tony.

When Lisa was 21, her friend got stabbed 28 times by a girl from another housing project. That was the year she told her mom she was tired of the fast life, the year she cut all her old ties, the year she found God. It was when she became a real mom, she said.

She passed the GED test and earned a degree from a technical college. She married a quiet truck driver who cared about Lisa's three children. They settled in Vero Beach and had a fourth child. Last year, the family moved to a Tampa mobile home after struggling with bad debt and an insurance company in the wake of Hurricanes Jeanne and Frances.

But Tony was thriving. As a sophomore, he was Riverview's starting cornerback. He got good grades and made friends easily. He was the funniest kid on the track team, the one with the movie-star smile.

Lisa was there watching him become the star she dreamed about. She bought a horn from Wal-Mart and blew it from the stands, just to let him know she was watching.

"You see him, No. 23? That's my baby," she'd say.

She saw No. 23 when she watched football on TV, too.

"That's going to be my baby," she told her husband. He said Tony was too small -- 5 feet 9 -- to really make it, but Lisa wouldn't hear it. He could be a pediatrician, an NFL player, or anything he wanted. No. 23 was that special kid, she knew. He was talented and driven and charismatic. He was going to be a star.

Until April 27, Lisa was certain Tony could do anything.

* * *

"Mom! Pressure release!" Tony wailed, his voice hoarse, his eyes filled with impatience and pain. He had stared at sterile hospital hallways, at doctors and physical therapists and little else for four weeks.

Lisa rushed to Tony. She released the taut elastic strap from his chest, the one that keeps him upright. She pulled his torso to her as he breathed a gust of air constrained in his chest. For a moment, the pain was gone.

The relief was temporary, and didn't address what he wished he could feel in his legs, arms and back. When Tony woke up on April 27, he knew exactly where he was and what had happened.

"I felt my legs behind me and saw them in front of me. I knew I had a spinal cord injury."

He wears a game face of dogged acceptance of the condition. He's stage C5, which means he can breathe on his own and feels a tingling feeling in parts of his arms.

The crash, he said, happened for a reason: He was so busy getting somewhere -- to that college scholarship or next big game or test -- that he didn't have time to spend with his family, and now he will.

Thanks to voice-assisted computer technology, he can take a full schedule of Advanced Placement classes next year, just like he had planned, he tells his occupational therapists.

He insists he's going to walk again.

Eventually, he believes he'll back on the football field and the track team.

Lisa believes, too, though the prognosis is poor: Some doctors say he won't walk again, others say it's not likely. Some say it can happen, if the patient is determined.

But when the visitors leave and it's quiet in Room 313, Lisa sees a pain no one else feels.

She remembers the night a tear rolled down Tony's face.

"What's wrong, baby?"

"Mom ... I can't feel my legs."

She reads to him from books with titles like Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limbs and A Man's Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines, books that tell him he can still be the star she wants him to be, no matter what happens.

She has left his side only four times in the last month, to go home and pack. Tony's school raised $5,000, enough for a security deposit and first month's rent on a house on Symmes Road.

The trailer isn't suitable for his wheelchair, and they'll need a ramp, portable shower, and voice-activated light switches.

The Brain & Spinal Cord Injury Program will pay for some, but she is not sure how they'll afford the rest. She tries to let her husband worry about the bills.

She cries in the shower at home, where Tony can't see her tears.

Tony always calls her back to the hospital. He needs a shower, and he only wants his mom to do it. She inserts his catheter at 9 p.m., 1 a.m., 5 a.m., and again at 9 a.m. She sleeps fitfully in a chair by his bed.

Before she closes her eyes, she sees her son, and she sees the dreams she still has for him, sees his resolve.

[Last modified June 10, 2007, 01:11:35]

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