Up Front: December 2007
Turner Johnson is the bravest, toughest kid I know. The son of our design/production director, he was born 12 years ago this month with a benign tumor that tethered his spinal cord to the base of his backbone. When he was 3 months old, surgeons cut it loose but couldn’t remove the growth, a glob of fatty tissue entwining itself around major nerves. The tumor eventually tied itself back to the spine, stretching the spinal cord and damaging nerves below his waist as he grew. Among symptoms he suffered was partial loss of sensation to one leg and to his bowels and bladder.
But that has to do with fate, not courage, though it’s true that Turner put up with more rubber-gloved poking and prodding before he was 10 than most of us will in a lifetime. As he approached adolescence, the tests brought bad news. Because the nerves constantly had sent the wrong signals, his bladder and bowels had been stretched like worn-out balloons.
Surgeons had to remove a section of his small intestine to patch his bladder. The intestines secrete mucous, so they needed to make a tube through which the rebuilt bladder could periodically be cleaned by sucking out the mucous with a syringe. They clipped his appendix, attaching it to the bladder and running it out a hole in his belly just above his beltline. Another tube nearby led back to where his appendix had been, egress for flushing his large intestine. The operation last summer took 4-1/2 hours. Moira, a single mother who has worked for the magazine more than 20 years, was out of work nearly six weeks as he recovered.
Those who recall their childhoods as idyllic must have missed or forgotten middle school, which Turner started this year. Some of the kids who had been in his elementary school had an inkling of the operation. Others just knew there was something different about this kid. The day after Halloween, the class was ambling around the track after lunch when he noticed a yellow-brown stain spreading down his shirt and pants. Nobody nearby could fail to notice the smell. Pressure building up in his gut was supposed to seal the tube; instead it was spewing its contents. Turner had to walk across the grounds and through the building to reach the school nurse’s station.
When Moira took him home, she asked if any of the other kids had given him a hard time. Turner, who has an older sister, doesn’t discuss his feelings much. Typical male, his mother would say. “Some,” he replied. “I’ve handled worse.” The next day was a Friday. It would have been easy to lay out and wait for the weekend to pass before going back. Sooner or later, it was something he had to deal with, Moira told him. Might as well get it over with. That’s what he did.