Vacation Car Accident Leads to Months of Rehabilitation

Meet Owen

Owen Johnson

Because of the difficult times Owen Johnson and his family have been through, teachers that don’t spend a lot of time around the 4-year-old expect him to be quiet and somber. 

“His teacher just laughs when she is asked if he’s sad,” Owen’s father, David, said. “He’s the happiest kid in class. He is an amazing little guy.” 

In the past year, Owen had to endure a lot to get back to the point where he is charming teachers with his upbeat personality. On July 1, 2011, the Johnson family of six–David, his wife Susannah, daughters Brooke, Kathryn and Hannah and son Owen–were rear-ended while waiting at a stoplight in north Georgia during a family vacation. Hannah, age 6, was killed in the crash. 

Owen’s spine was severed in the impact. But when the family was taken to Erlanger Medical Center in Tennessee, the family’s first concern was Owen’s head, which had significant hemorrhaging.

“For the first four or five days, we didn’t even know he had a spinal cord injury,” David said. “We weren’t looking at his spine, just his brain.”

In addition to a severed spinal cord, Owen had hydrocephalus and a fracture of the right femur. His spinal cord injury left Owen a quadriplegic and with chronic respiratory failure.


When Owen was stable enough to leave the intensive care unit at Erlanger Medical Center, David and Susannah, who live in Palm Bay, Fla., started looking for the best place for their son to continue treatment.

David visited Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and met with one of the board-certified pediatric physiatrists at Children’s.

“Children’s was an easy choice,” David said. “That was the only place that was close to home and could deal with everything Owen needed and had the appropriate care.”


Owen stayed with Children’s for two months in 2011, from late July through September. During his stay, he received spinal fusion surgery. With the help of physical therapists at Children’s, Owen learned how to use a power wheelchair.

Doctors credited the progress Owen made to the Spinal Cord Injury Program’s multidisciplinary team.

The Children’s speech-pathology team taught Owen how to speak while on the ventilator. Perhaps most importantly, the family learned the extent of Owen’s injuries and how to care for them while at Children’s.“

They did a really good job teaching us how to care for him,” David said. “There is a lot of equipment to drag with you and we really had to work to get him moving.”

More than a year since the accident, Owen is back in school and the family has settled into a regular routine of outpatient therapy. On top of being one of the happiest kids in class, Owen is now the only one well-versed in medical jargon.

“It’s funny to hear a 4-year-old talking about all of his medical care,” David said. “He’s a very intelligent little guy.”