Full Speed Ahead

Deer Lodge Centre resident inspires others with his independent spirit

He might be the most popular resident living in Deer Lodge Centre. At age 29, he’s certainly one of the youngest. Andrew Johnson has so many visitors drop by his fifth-floor room on a daily basis, he’s installed a sign above his bed that says, “Sorry I missed your visit — here’s my cell phone number.”

“I’m all over the place,” he admits, “so my room is the last place you’ll find me.”

Charging from one end of Deer Lodge Centre to the other in a motorized wheelchair, Andrew has a busy schedule that includes volunteering, bingo games, taking art classes to improve his hand-eye coordination, and stopping to lift the spirits of any patient or resident who is feeling under the weather.

“So many people stop me and tell me how much they love Andrew,” says his mother, Faith. “He’s always keeping an eye out for those around him. The nurses and staff tell me his being there makes a huge difference.”

Andrew has lived at Deer Lodge Centre since October 2015. He was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder that leads to decreased mobility. “Everyone knows what ALS [Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis] is,” he explains. “The symptoms are similar, but ALS develops really fast, while this moves a lot slower.”

Twice a week Andrew goes for physiotherapy, where he practices squeezing, kicking, and sitting up on the edge of a bed to strengthen his core muscles. Like many people living with this condition, Andrew was able to move, walk and dress himself when he was a child. “Then we started noticing little changes,” says Faith. “He’d need more help getting out of bed. He couldn’t lift his legs that well. He’d fall, and each time the recovery would take a little longer, take a little more out of him.”

Andrew could still walk on his own when he graduated from high school. For five years, he worked as a child care assistant. Then, one night, he failed to return home at the expected time. After searching for hours, Faith and her husband found Andrew lying in the snow not far from the Charleswood Parkway, where he’d fallen after getting off the bus. Not long after that, he suffered injuries from another serious fall and had to use a wheelchair permanently.

Knowing that his condition would continue to require more support as it progressed, Faith and her husband put Andrew on the waiting list for long-term care at Deer Lodge Centre. “We were looking at our ages and thinking, in five more years, how well would we be able to give him the care he needs? We wanted to make plans while we were still healthy and while Andrew was still well.”

A longtime volunteer at Deer Lodge, Faith has played the piano for patients and residents since 2009, and says she could think of no better home for Andrew. “I know the staff, how great they are. It’s so close to our home. My mom and dad lived here; I saw how well they were looked after. I just knew, this was the place for my son to be.”

The Johnsons were told the waiting list for a room in long-term care was six months to a year, which suited them fine. Then, five days later, they got a call with the news that a room was available — now.

“We were in shock. It was a big decision and we had to make it fast. We had no time to prepare emotionally. But we knew that whether he moved in now or later, it wouldn’t be any easier. Ask Andrew what the move was like for him.” Andrew says, quietly, “The first few days were re-ally rough. A lot just completely changed for me all at once…”

His face brightens. “And then I got my power chair.” Andrew’s chair was custom designed to meet his specific needs. For instance, it can tilt to a more comfort-able position or for a nap. Deer Lodge’s Occupational Therapy program trained him in driver safety and prepared him for a power chair driver’s test, which he aced.

Faith laughs. “He went from sitting on a chesterfield at home, watching TV with his parents, to a having this whole new world to explore.” Overall, the result of living at Deer Lodge Centre is more independence for Andrew, who doesn’t believe in staying still. On top of physio, volunteering, and visiting friends all across the Centre, he also spends a lot of time on his laptop – he’s something of a techie. He goes home to his family once a week, and often his friends pick him up from Deer Lodge in the Johnson’s wheelchair van for an evening out. “We go to church and fellowship, then out to a movie or a restaurant.” Andrew often leaves Deer Lodge in his chair for ice cream or a trip to nearby Assiniboine Park. “Here, he has this whole other Deer Lodge family, with grandparents and aunts and uncles who love him,” says Faith. “It’s a complete community that looks after him and has everything he needs.”

Overall, the result of living at Deer Lodge Centre is more independence for Andrew, who doesn’t believe in staying still. On top of physio, volunteering, and visiting friends all across the Centre, he also spends a lot of time on his laptop – he’s something of a techie. He goes home to his family once a week, and often his friends pick him up from Deer Lodge in the Johnson’s wheelchair van for an evening out. “We go to church and fellowship or out to a movie or a restaurant.”

Andrew often leaves Deer Lodge in his chair for ice cream or a trip to nearby Assiniboine Park. “Here, he has this whole other Deer Lodge family, with grandparents and aunts and uncles who love him,” says Faith. “It’s a complete community that looks after him and has everything he needs.”