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After a dire medical crisis, a family finds a way to say ‘thank you’

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On a December evening in 2015, Rich Johnson found himself kneeling on a Richmond city street beside his critically injured wife, Joyce.

Joyce was thrown from a tourist pedal trolley, which is a pedal- and motor-powered vehicle that seats about 12 people. The trolley then ran over her pelvis, and at the same time, her leg became caught in the gears, causing her to be dragged for a short distance.

The paramedic who was kneeling beside Rich that evening told him Joyce needed to go to VCU Medical Center, and the two years and nine months of lifesaving care that followed is what inspired Joyce and Rich to make a very big announcement this May.

At VCU Health’s annual Shining Knight Gala, the Richmond couple shared with the hospital trauma teams and first responders in attendance that they would donate $1 million to support and name the surgical trauma intensive care unit where they spent the harrowing hours, days and weeks following Joyce’s accident.

Lifesaving care

It was early in the morning after Joyce’s accident when her surgeon found Rich, who had been up all night in the emergency department waiting room.  

The surgeon explained that Joyce had suffered broken bones in about 27 places, including her pelvis, leg, sacrum and ribs. She also needed a skin graft for lacerations on her leg. She had lost nearly half of the blood in her body by the time she arrived at VCU Medical Center, and likely had less than 20 minutes to live if the bleeding continued.

The surgeon told Rich that VCU Health teams were planning the first of what would eventually be nine surgeries, which included implanting a rod in Joyce’s leg, screwing three pieces of her delicate and nerve-filled sacrum back together, and reconstructing her pelvis.   

X ray of broken leg and pelvis.
Left and bottom: X-ray images show the broken leg and pelvis that Joyce Johnson suffered after being thrown from a bike trolley in 2015. Top, Johnson's legs as she healed at VCU Medical Center. (Photos courtesy of Joyce and Rich Johnson)

Joyce was in a dire medical situation, but in the end, damage from the blood loss was mitigated and the surgeries all went perfectly.

After two weeks in the surgical trauma intensive care unit, she was transferred to a stepdown unit where she spent six weeks before going home to complete her full recovery over the next two years.

This outcome would not have been possible at many hospitals. As a Level I trauma center, VCU Medical Center is equipped to handle the most serious types of trauma cases for adults and children 365 days a year.

“The doctors were fabulous — their skill and knowledge at the beginning is what saved me,” Joyce said. “And then the day-to-day care from the nurses was incredible. Every day my nurses came in and they made me feel like I was their only patient, and that it was all about me. Not only did they care for me physically, they cared for me mentally.”

Saying ‘thank you’ 

Joyce was still in the hospital when she told Rich she wanted to help the nurses who were supporting her recovery.

“How about nurses coming along who don’t have the funds for education, or they have families, so their funds are tight?’” Joyce said. “I want to make it easy for them.”

The couple acted quickly on Joyce’s idea, and in 2016 they established the Joyce Johnson Scholarship for Nursing Education to support scholarships for nursing students who work at VCU Health.

Scholarship recipients stand with Joyce and Rich.
Joyce and Rich Johnson present awards to the three nursing students who will benefit from the Joyce Johnson Scholarship for Nursing Education in academic year 2019-20. From left to right: Kallen Bynum, Alexandra Armbrecht and Heather Cantwell. (Photo by Eric Peters)

After establishing the scholarship, Joyce and Rich were not finished saying “thank you” just yet.

They knew they wanted to help the surgical trauma intensive care unit directly, and after they took a tour when Joyce had recovered, their plans were set. The incredible goal they set that day was realized in May when Joyce and Rich made their announcement at the Shining Knight Gala.

Their $1 million gift will establish two endowed funds to support the care and maintenance of the unit and advance the educational needs of its staff. The gift also will name the unit the Joyce and Rich Johnson Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit.

“We talked to people about the expense to maintain a unit like that, and to keep it top-notch,” Rich said. “It costs a lot, but if we didn’t have this Level I trauma center here in Richmond, Joyce wouldn’t be alive today.”

“Having the Level I trauma center here helps attract the best doctors and the best nurses,” Joyce added. “We have to keep that unit going for the next patient.”

And the gift is already helping more than just patients.

Guest stand and clap to honor Rich and Joyce, who are seated at table.
Rich and Joyce Johnson receive a standing ovation at VCU Health’s 2019 Shining Knight Gala after their $1 million gift to the surgical trauma intensive care unit was announced. (Photo by Kevin Morley, VCU University Relations)

“When we hear a story like the Johnsons’, and how we had a role in bringing them all as a family to a better quality of life in the face of tragedy, that alone is an enormous gift to all of us,” said Marsha Rappley, M.D., CEO of the VCU Health System and senior vice president for health sciences at VCU. “So when they turn around and say, ‘thank you,’ that gift is so inspiring to everyone here, it’s an affirmation that we are doing the right thing.”

Joyce and Rich are proud of their individual impact, but they stress that supporting a complex enterprise like VCU Health is a community endeavor at all levels.

“There are people who do a whole lot more than we do — good for them — and people who don’t give as much as we do — good for them too,” Rich said. “If everybody does what they can, it all comes together in the end. And what do you have to show for it? You have a Level I trauma center at VCU Health that’s making Central Virginia a magical and safe place for everybody.”