Guard survived 'hit,' now helps other trauma survivors

May 09, 2016
Robert Johnson Trauma Survivor
Surgeon Stephen Fann and trauma survivor Robert Johnson became friends while Johnson recovered from being shot six times. Photo by Dawn Brazell

Staring down the muzzle of the .38-caliber revolver, Robert Johnson knew the scene wasn’t going to go down well. 

He had just scuffled and lost with a man who kicked in his door early in the morning on March 5, 2010. Johnson, who was a state prison guard at the time getting ready for work, tried to fight off the intruder, a man Johnson would later learn had been hired to kill him for $6,000.

The man put six bullets into him less than 6 feet away and left him for dead. 

Johnson had told his wife to escape if anything should happen, instead of trying to save him. Thankfully, she listened.

“We had made a plan because we knew I had a hit on me,” he said, explaining that he had developed enemies at Lee Correctional Institution at Bishopville for his talent for discovering illegal contraband, including cell phones. Johnson always thought the hit would be out in the streets or at the prison, though.

“I call her the bravest woman that I know,” said Johnson explaining how his wife came back to help him after the man left him for dead.  “She gave me a towel and held it on me and called 911. And she did just what I wanted her to do, leave the house - cause there was no sense in both of us getting hurt. Somebody had to tell the story.”

And what a story it would be. 

Johnson, as part of Trauma Awareness Month in May, is telling his story to help other survivors learn some of the ways he’s managed to survive not only the physical, but the emotional toll as well. Often trauma survivors have a long road to recovery that takes perseverance and reaching out to others who already know the ropes of creating a “new normal.”

Trauma is the leading cause of death for people 1 to 46 and the third leading cause of death overall, across all age groups. The impact of life years lost is equal to that of cancer, heart disease and HIV combined, according to the National Trauma Institute.

Johnson’s new normal started when he woke up by his bathtub, knowing he was gravely injured. He and his wife began quoting scriptures as they waited for an ambulance to arrive. 

Johnson was stabilized at a local hospital to be flown to Richland Memorial in Columbia. Surgeon Stephen Fann, M.D., who now is an associate professor of surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina, recalls being surrounded by a SWAT team of law enforcement officers with M-16s.

He took one look at the extent of Johnson’s injuries and called in his partner. “He had horrendous injuries,” he said, adding that the gunshots affected Johnson’s colon, small bowel, liver, iliac vein and vena cava, the large vein that drains and returns most of the blood to the heart. “It was a very big case and a very challenging case. He arrested on the table, and at one point one of my partners and I were operating on him at the same time.”

Johnson said he doesn’t remember much, but was told Fann let his wife come in the operating room without a gown or mask at one point to say goodbye to him. “[Fann] said, ‘I wanted her to touch you while you were still warm before you got cold.’ That’s how sure he was that I was going to die. He said they gave me 63 units of blood. I bled out three times, and they had to use this machine to force the blood into my system because it would bleed out as fast as they put it in.”

Dr. Fann’s fan

Johnson’s road to recovery would be long and slow, with more than 20 surgeries and other procedures. He now has only 51 percent lung capacity. “The violence from those six bullets, I looked it up on the Internet at 755 feet per second, caused my heart to have a dead spot, and I have atrial fibrillation. The iliac vein to my left leg causes a limp, and it swells up, and I’m in pain 24/7 from that. I broke three ribs. And like my wife and I say, ‘This is the new normal.’”

When Fann came to MUSC, Johnson followed him here. They had been through so much together, and Fann never gave up on him. Johnson sometimes brings him treats, such as shelled pecans. They share a love of fishing and tell tall fish tales together, so Fann recently gave him a fly fishing rod. 

Fann said it’s been a long and hard recovery. “So far so good. For a guy who died on the table, he’s doing remarkably well. He actually gave me a plaque that I keep at home for not giving up on him there in those first few weeks,” Fann said. “He has a tremendously positive attitude. He has continued to live life to the fullest. His daughter, unfortunately, succumbed to an aggressive breast cancer, and he weathered all of that while dealing with the complications of his surgery.”

Fann describes trauma patients as some of the most vulnerable in the health care system, and special bonds often form. Johnson has a T-shirt with the slogan ‘Dr. Fann’s fan.’

“It’s kind of a special thing,” Fann said. “He has me on short dial and can call at any point, and we can get him in if he needs it.”

Fann said he’s glad to see the MUSC Trauma Survivors Network get rolling to address long-term emotional needs and provide a support network for trauma survivors. MUSC’s Trauma Telehealth Resilience and Recovery Program offers much-needed outreach efforts to help those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and depression or anxiety. “I think it’s a much needed service. I think our patients deserve these grass-root, holistic efforts. Our goal is return a person from their injury to a productive life.”

More needs to be done to support trauma survivors, he said. 

“Trauma to me is an unrecognized epidemic in our country. It’s kind of like the thief in the night. It strikes without warning. People are subjected to it without preparation. It affects every aspect of your life. The patient deals with it for the rest of their life moving forward. It’s truly a life-altering event. It affects the entire family.” 

One of the best features of the Trauma Survivors Network is a peer-mentoring program where survivors can help others. Fann said Johnson is one of his greatest inspirations. He shows others in law enforcement who have had similar injuries that there is life after recovery. 

“He shows them that despite these horrific injuries, you can have a full life after this. I call him my hero. He has had a positive attitude throughout this. He has not let his injuries and the limitations they have produced suppress him in any way. He reads voraciously. He goes on speaking tours. He’s become an advocate to improve prison security systems and to limit prisoner access to cell service so what happened to him cannot happen to others.”

Forgiveness brings healing

Johnson also shares advice about how recovery comes in stages.

Following the shooting, he spent four months in three different hospitals, and when he got home he went through a period of depression. He didn’t want to leave his home, but his wife wouldn’t hear of it. “She made me. She would say, ‘Let’s go, we’re going for a ride.’ She took me to this one area of Sumter, and I saw this man out in his yard taking care of his yard with one leg. And I said, ‘Man, I got a leg and a half. I can at least do something.’ And that motivated me to start doing something toward my recovery.’”

Another milestone for him was being able to forgive Sean Echols, who was convicted in the shooting. 

“The Lord has blessed me because he woke me one morning, and it was like the word ‘forgiveness’ was placed in my mind,” he said. Johnson fought it, feeling like this man had hunted him down as prey. “It’s like it was pressed to my spirit. God said, ‘What is that to you? Follow me.’ So I forgave him and even in that courtroom, once we had this trial, he asked forgiveness in the courtroom, and I told him I forgave him.”

It helped Johnson start to heal emotionally.  

Another life lesson Johnson, now 63, learned is that some scars will remain. He’s not the man anymore who used to do push-ups and sit-ups and take a run. He has a limp and battles an irregular heart rhythm. He has limited lung capacity. The physical ailments, though, do not prevent him from traveling to advocate for trauma survivors and for better regulations to be able to block cell phone signals in prison. 

Johnson accepts reality and doesn’t pretend the trauma didn’t happen. It helps to talk about it, something he encourages other survivors to do. Fann always let him talk and was quite frank about his medical issues, which he appreciated.

“I’m handicapped. I wear it as a badge. I say yes, ‘I’m handicapped, and I deserve the tag.' I don’t try and gloss over anything. I deserve that.”

And he keeps moving on. He has a new house, a two-mile trail he’s mapped out to walk and he is working on two books. 

“The Lord has shown me that this is the new normal. Do what you can now. And I don’t dwell on the past. I dwell on what I can do now. And I think that’s what has really helped me.”