Redefining Normal After a spinal cord injury left 19-year old Mackenzie Johnson a paraplegic, instead of asking why, he and his family asked, “What’s next?”

In 2016, 19-year old Mackenzie Johnson fell 35 feet from a cabin balcony. He was transported by UT LIFESTAR to The University of Tennessee Medical Center’s Level I Trauma Center. There, physicians treated him for an incomplete T-12 spinal cord injury. The T-12 vertebra is located at the base of the rib cage, and injuring it left him permanently paralyzed from the waist down.

“Once I realized the gravity of what had happened,” Mackenzie said, “I was like, how am I going to do anything? How am I going to function?”

The medical center staff helped the family see that life wasn’t over. “They told him, you can still do anything you’d planned before, just maybe on a different path,’” said his mom, Jeannée Johnson. “So, we never asked why. It was just, ‘What’s next?’”

The University of Tennessee Medical Center: Equipped and ready for any crisis

As the region’s only Level I Trauma Center verified by the American College of Surgeons (ACS), The University of Tennessee Medical Center provides total care for every aspect of traumatic injury — from prevention through rehabilitation.

Specialized processes and teams are in place to care for accidents, falls, strokes and cardiac emergencies, as well as other life-threatening traumas. Our Emergency Department offers:

  • Level I Trauma Center, ACS verified
  • Board-certified, specially trained trauma teams
  • Surgical capabilities around the clock
  • Dedicated, expert staff
  • Emergency medicine physicians
  • Advanced Level Practitioners
  • Dedicated nursing, paramedics and ancillary staff
  • Comprehensive range of specialty consultants
  • A Magnet-recognized nursing team
  • UT LIFESTAR aeromedical services

You can't know when an emergency will happen — but you can know where to go to get the right care.

When the medical center released him, Mackenzie traveled to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, where he spent three months rehabilitating. While there, he was exposed to the world of adaptive activities, like swimming, wheelchair basketball and cycling.

“It was good therapy,” said Mackenzie. “I found out that I could still enjoy things I used to do, even if some parts were different or adaptive.”

A Life-Changing Basketball Camp

One of the sports he tried while in rehab — wheelchair basketball — clicked. “I loved the camaraderie and the physicality,” said Mackenzie, who played football in high school.

He decided to make basketball his primary sport, and to play for local Division III team when he went to college that fall. To hone his skills, he went to a summer basketball camp at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama.

That summer camp changed the course of his college career.

Mackenzie Johnson said playing sports is good therapy. “I found out that I could still enjoy things I used to do, even if some parts were different or adaptive.” He’s now a member of Auburn’s Wheelchair Basketball Team, one of only 10 teams in the country playing at the intercollegiate level.

Originally, Mackenzie planned to return to Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But when he went to Auburn, “He liked it, and the coach liked him, and asked if he’d think about playing for their team,” said Jeannée.

Mackenzie spent the next month transferring to Auburn, which included lining up housing and scholarships, and managing all the details, big and small, that go into switching colleges. Now, a junior in accounting, Mackenzie plays with the Auburn Wheelchair Basketball team, one of 10 National Wheelchair Basketball teams in the country playing at the intercollegiate level. "They're the center of my support network," he said.

The Healing Power of Support Networks

“Strong family support and a positive outlook are what Mackenzie had from the beginning,” said UT Medical Center Surgeon James Goodin. Goodin also serves as an assistant professor in the Division of Trauma & Critical Care Surgery at the University of Tennessee Graduate School of Medicine.

“Our job is to keep things real, while also helping our spinal cord patients see that there’s life after their injury,” Goodin said. “Providers play a role, but it really takes a team to help our patients get the best outcome.”

The Trauma Survivors Network (TSN) is an important part of the medical center’s support team. The TSN supports people who have experienced a traumatic injury, in part by sending peer visitors — people who survived trauma or their family members — to talk with patients like Mackenzie.

The Trauma Survivors Network is an important part of the medical center’s support team.

“Doctors are great,” Mackenzie said, “but they give you typical answers. You want to talk to someone who's been there."

Many people who survive a life-changing trauma find giving back helps them heal. Mackenzie found this to be true for him, and he became a peer visitor with the medical center’s TSN.

As a peer visitor with The University of Tennessee Medical Center, Mackenzie talks with other trauma survivors, using his sense of humor to put them at ease. "When you meet people, at first, they see you as your disability. If you can laugh at your own situation, they’re more comfortable being around you, because they know you're comfortable with yourself."

Mackenzie visits with his peers in Knoxville via phone and Facetime from the Auburn campus. "Just keeping in touch is so big,” he said.

Accessible Doesn’t Always Mean Wheelchair Friendly

Mackenzie’s injury changed how the family views the world and helped them understand that “accessible” doesn’t always mean wheelchair-friendly.

The family took trips together to help Mackenzie learn how to travel on his own. Jeannée described an experience they had at a hotel on the road. “We stayed at a hotel that wanted to put us on the eighth floor. I was like, ‘You know he can’t walk, right? What happens if there’s an emergency?’ So, the guy told us they’d move us to the fourth floor. I said, ‘Oh good, we’ll jump from the fourth floor instead of the eighth.’”

“Before this happened to Mackenzie, I thought a restroom with a handrail was accessible,” said Jeannée. “Now I go into a supposedly accessible restroom and think, ‘There is no way someone in a wheelchair could use this.’”

And while the family has modified their house for wheelchair use, they’re considering moving to a one-level home. “Modifications are expensive, and they’re not always covered by insurance,” said Jeannée. “It will probably be cheaper for us to move. But that’s okay, as long as we’re together.”

Staying Open to New Possibilities

In the meantime, Mackenzie is keeping an open mind to new possibilities. “If someone offers me an opportunity to do something new, I take it,” he said.

As a result, since his injury, he's tried tennis, surfing, cycling and water skiing. But the most exhilarating experience he has had since his injury is skydiving. One year after he fell, Mackenzie and his friends jumped from a plane flying at 14,000 feet.

“I fell from something higher than that balcony and survived,” he said. "Now I tell people that first time I fell, I just forgot my parachute,” said Mackenzie.

“I fell from something higher than that balcony and survived,” he said. "Now I tell people that first time I fell, I just forgot my parachute,” said Mackenzie, laughing.

Jeannée says it’s all part of her son learning to be the best “him” he can be. “I tell people this is Mackenzie’s journey,” said Jeannée. “He’s just allowed us to be a part of it.”

Resources for the Journey

After a spinal injury, the whole family’s need for support changes. Finding resources for all types of assistance is part of the journey.

“Even though I’d worked in education for years,” said Jeannée, “I had never known anyone with a spinal injury. We were literally starting from scratch.”

The medical center staff introduced the family to the Trauma Survivors Network. Other groups, like the Challenged Athletes Association helped outfit Mackenzie with adaptive equipment for sports. The Physically Challenged Athletes Scholarship Fund, Swim With Mike, helped him afford Auburn.

And the Johnsons’ community played a big role in Mackenzie’s transition to his newly abled life. “This isn’t the club you would choose to be a member of,” Jeannée said. “But we’ve met some phenomenal people who have changed our lives for the better.”

Rebuilding After Trauma: The Trauma Survivors Network

The Trauma Survivors Network is a community of patients and families like Mackenzie's who are looking to connect with one another and rebuild their lives after a traumatic injury.

Joining this community can help ease the anxiety and frustration often experienced following a traumatic injury. Most of us have little experience with traumatic injuries, the accompanying hospitalization and the resulting recovery, which can be filled with uncertainty, anxiety and frustration.

Trauma Survivors Network 2018 Statistics

In 2018, the medical center's Trauma Survivors Network supported patients in a variety of ways, including:

  • TSN's outpatient support group, Let's Chat, averaged eight participants per meeting, or about 96 patients per year.
  • TSN coordinators supported 1,333 patients, with 29 percent receiving follow-up visits after the initial visit.
  • Ninety-five peer visits occurred during 2018. Peer visitors dedicated more than 120 hours to the TSN program and conducting peer visits.

For more information about TSN programs, contact TSN coordinators at 865-305-9970, email TSNCoordinator@utmck.edu or visit traumasurvivorsnetwork.org.

The Trauma Survivors Network at The University of Tennessee Medical Center offers trauma survivors and their families a variety of resources:

  • Peer Visitation: This program offers patients the opportunity to talk with a trained volunteer who has experienced the aftermath of a serious injury; offering the perspective of someone who has been there.
  • Support Groups: Peer support groups allow you to share your thoughts, concerns and hopes for the future with others facing similar challenges.
  • Snack & Chat: Traumatic injury impacts family and friends in many ways. Caregivers often deal with frustration, anger, guilt, fear, sadness, and the responsibility of caregiving. Here you will find support from families that have experienced this before.
  • NextSteps: The NextSteps program is based on the principles of self-management. This approach to health recognizes that YOU play the most important role in your recovery. This class is free and available from the comfort of your home.

“Mackenzie never forgets to … I won’t say look back is the right word … but if someone is starting the journey new, he’s always willing to give time and encouragement, just like he was helped to get to where he was,” Jeannée said.

For more information about the Trauma Program at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, visit Trauma Services. Find out about the many ways the Trauma Program serves the community by downloading the 2018 Annual Trauma Report.