Overcoming a life changing injury with strength, dignity and a committed team

October is Disability Awareness Month in King County. We will be featuring stories that highlight the experiences and contributions of employees experiencing disabilities to our King County community throughout the next few weeks.

In early December 2017, King County employee Todd Johnson experienced a tragic accident. A truck driver with the then Roads Division in the former Department of Transportation (DOT) for 21 years, Todd was working with a backhoe digger when his right hand got caught in the machine. After a coworker rushed him to the hospital, Todd underwent multiple surgeries and blood transfusions due to losing over three units of blood. He ultimately spent 11 days in the trauma center. This serious injury resulted in the loss of his index, middle, ring, and pinky fingers. Along with losing the four fingers, Todd lost three-fourths of his right hand, and his thumb was 60% severed.

Determined to celebrate his granddaughter’s first Christmas and be with his family, Todd began the challenging work of overcoming this nightmare.

Pictured: Todd with his prosthetic carbon fiber hand.

“Recovery was a long process. I was told for every day you are in bed you have a week to recover,” he said. “I lost three-fourths of my right dominant hand in the accident and am relearning to do everything now with my left hand.”

In addition to the amazing medical staff at Snoqualmie Valley Hospital and Harborview Medical Center, which included an assigned case manager and rehabilitation specialist, Todd had the full support of his King County family.

“What a great team of people I had in my court,” he said, sharing the names of several employees, including his Disability Services Consultant, union representation, and leadership from the department and the county.

“Brenda Bauer (current Deputy Chief Operating Officer in the Executive Office) stayed with my wife Lynn on the day of the accident until I went into surgery 9 hours later,” Todd said. “Jeremy Ferguson (current Maintenance Section Manager in the Department of Local Services) did the same.”

“Executive Dow Constantine visited me in the hospital and kept an open communication with my wife Lynn if I needed anything.”

Released to go home by December 22, Todd spent the holidays with his family. The coming New Year held many challenges for him: working through rehab, daunting medical issues, frustrating insurance paperwork, and the concern of going back to work. One day at a time, Todd made progress. Eventually he even returned to work in a light duty capacity in May 2018.

Given his new limitations, Todd was not cleared by his medical providers or driving safety specialist to drive a manual transmission vehicle, however Disability Services informed him that there were other tasks available for him to perform within those limitations. These included serving as a driver for other employees to various worksites, reviewing current projects and photographing them, monitoring sediment basins and traps, traffic flagging, salting and shoveling snow, and other responsibilities.

After a year in this role, and through his continued treatment and positive recovery progress, Todd was able to return to work in a full-time capacity in May 2019 and was reassigned to a vacant Truck Driver III position in the Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP), Solid Waste Division (SWD). He’d had to study and retest in order to regain his commercial driver’s license to return in a driving capacity. Todd is grateful for the continued support of the entire division and Teamsters Local 174 for their commitment to seeing him succeed in recovery and in his work.

“Vern Gapp, Teamsters 174 Shop Steward and SWD truck driver, was instrumental in advising the entire division of my injury and returning to work,” said Todd. “Truck drivers Shad Hulse and Jason Mola were gracious enough to give up their trucks for me.”

“The entire team at the Solid Waste Division had my back and continues to do so.”

Pictured: Todd and his wife Lynn.

While the challenges from this life altering injury will continue, Todd pushes on to persevere. There are many things he can still do but it takes a lot more time and considerable patience. Aside from work, he is relearning how to pursue his passion in golf and adjusting to a different way of life.

“As a competitive tournament golfer I was a 3 handicap. After my accident I became 9.5 handicap” he explained. “I was able to find a ‘strap’ that enabled me to continue my love of the game, and I continue to improve as my handicap is now 8.4.”

“Overall it is difficult and expensive to find items to assist with my disability. I have learned to become left hand dominant.”

Throughout his ordeal, the support of Todd’s coworkers, King County Disability Services, Teamsters 174, and others has been unwavering. His wife Lynn is candid about the experience and appreciative of the impact King County had on Todd’s recovery.

“I have been through this journey with Todd since day one,” she said. “We have been through hell and back. King County made sure we had access to all the people we needed.”

The continued support of King County has been instrumental in helping Todd and his family throughout his recovery. Jamie Christensen, Todd’s Disability Services Consultant, shared how important it is to ensure an inclusive workplace for employees with disabilities.

“Seeing Todd persevere through the struggles of this new reality as a result of his life changing injury has given me a new perspective on our role in supporting our employees with disabilities,” she said.

“Everyone’s efforts to help and support Todd, Lynn, and his family show our commitment to the ‘True North’ mission to make King County a welcoming community where every person can thrive.”

Todd shares his story with the anticipation that it will open people’s eyes and minds to the struggles and victories people experiencing a disability face. He is more than his disability. He is a survivor, and in the words of Lynn, “has a lot more living to do.”

“What I hope can be improved are people’ perceptions,” Todd said. “Just because you have lost a body part does not mean you have lost the person.”

“I am still the man I was before, but with some challenges.”

King County Disability Services (DS) works directly with employees, supervisors and managers, and other HR professionals to provide assistance with disability benefits, reasonable accommodations and leaves to every employee. DS also provides coordination of Transitional Duty Assignments, job placement assistance through a Reassignment Program, and technical support, training and services, among others. To learn more visit www.kingcounty.gov/disabilityservices.

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