Six months ago, Derek Johnson's life veered off path.
A serious health issue knows no age and, in this case, caught a 17-year-old by surprise.
"When you're a teenager, you feel like nothing can stop you," Johnson said. "Then when something does, it makes you stop and be thankful for what you have."
Today, the junior at Norfolk High School is grateful for each new day.
In late February, after hanging up his basketball shoes for the season, the son of Tom and Marcee Johnson started getting headaches on a somewhat regular basis.
“At first, I didn't think too much of it,” Johnson said. “But then they wouldn't go away.”
Described as an 8 or 9 on a pain scale of 10, the headaches were brief but piercing.
“I just felt sluggish a lot and didn't know what was wrong,” he said.
Those close to Johnson, including Norfolk High track coach Aaron Bradley, were concerned and equally as puzzled.
“Usually, a runner will drop between five to 12 seconds from his freshman to sophomore year,” Bradley said. “Derek had run the 800-meter run as a freshman in 2 minutes, 11 seconds. In the first meet of his sophomore season, he ran a 2:24. Something wasn't right.”
After struggling through track season, his condition took a turn for the worse in early June on a cross country training trip to South Dakota.
“The first day we ran, Derek got sick and threw up,” Bradley said. “Derek is a stubborn kid and was determined to fight through whatever was going on, but he was sick every day we were there. After finding out he was having headaches and dizziness, everyone agreed something needed to be done.”
Upon returning home, Johnson's initial doctor's visit resulted in a diagnosis of a pinched nerve in the base of his neck. Physical therapy and chiropractic helped a little but not a lot.
Upon getting a second opinion, a CAT scan was ordered and came back negative.
Two days later, on Aug. 3, with their son unable to get off the couch under his own power, his parents had had enough. A trip to the emergency room followed by another doctor's visit led to an appointment with a neurologist.
“Since the neurologist only came to Norfolk every other Wednesday, they wanted to wait another eight days for the appointment,” Marcee Johnson said. “I said we're not waiting that long. So, they said if we could be in Omaha by 8:30 a.m. the next day, he would see him.”
Done and done.
Following the examination, the neurologist said Johnson's third ventricle, which typically measures one millimeter in size, was three times that big, and it contained a little more fluid than normal.
On Aug. 6, after the initial MRI, dye was injected and additional images taken.
“That's when I first felt this was something serious,” Johnson said.
A talk with the neurologist's assistant revealed they had found a tumor at the base of his neck in the fourth ventricle, which was clogging the flow of spinal fluid.
“I was glad they found something but scared of what was going to happen next and how serious it really was,” Johnson said. “I've lost both grandparents on my dad's side to cancer, so it was a little terrifying.”
Johnson was immediately admitted to Children's Hospital, but surgery was put off until the next day in hopes that he would be a little stronger for the procedure. A surprise visit from his best friend, Chace Hutchison, may have accomplished more than any intravenous fluids being pumped into his body.
“He's the first person I called and he ended up coming down to Omaha that night,” Johnson said. “He really helped keep my mind off what was going on.”
According to Johnson, a three-hour surgery the following day was nothing compared to another MRI the following morning.
“Laying in that MRI machine for 2½ hours is one of the hardest things I've ever done,'' Johnson said.
On Aug. 10, 26 pounds lighter than his normal weight, Johnson returned home with his family.
Three days later, news came via a phone call that the tumor was cancerous.
“They had told me there was only a 10 percent chance it would be cancerous and it was,” Johnson said. “That was kind of rough. It really knocks you down.”
Another trip to Omaha meant more tough decisions. The surgeon had purposefully left a small piece of the tumor behind because it was wrapped around a blood vessel. The oncologist then recommended another surgery to extract the remainder of the tumor, but the two physicians ultimately agreed a SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) scan should be performed to get an even more defined look at the area.
It turned out to be the right call, which led to an even better call later that day to the Johnsons.
“They said the piece that had been left behind was not part of the tumor but another blood vessel, so no additional surgery was needed,” Marcee Johnson said. “It was huge news. It meant Derek could have radiation treatments instead of chemotherapy.”
Since returning home, Johnson has had ample time to reflect on the many, many people who have helped him through his ordeal.
Like the bracelets his twin sister Skylar and older sister Kylee are selling that read, “No One Fights Alone.”
“My family, my friends and the community have been great,” Johnson said. “Between the cards, gifts and people stopping, the kindness has really been overwhelming.”
His family agrees, the outpouring of support has been immeasurable.
“He had definitely not fought alone,” Tom Johnson said. “Derek is the type of person who doesn't give up. He's had a very positive attitude and says this will only make him stronger.”
On Wednesday, Johnson began six weeks of radiation treatments, with the hope of someday getting his life back on track . . . literally.
“One of the best things was getting my appetite back,” said Johnson, who is back up to his normal weight of 160 pounds. “This has changed my life in a positive way. I've learned a lot about the power of prayer and to live life with no regrets.”
Six months ago, Derek Johnson's life veered off path.
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