Head injury leads 12-year-old Hannah Johnson on crusade for helmets


By Ashley Mackin

Until recently, Hannah Johnson was a very active 12 year old. She liked to skateboard, surf and run every day. When out riding, she always wore a helmet. But on May 3, while skateboarding with friends, she couldn’t find a helmet and decided to go without wearing one — just this once. That one time, she fell and cracked her skull from the base of her left ear to the top of her head.

Though slowly on the path to recovery, at one point, doctors weren’t sure she was going to make it. Now, she’s on a mission to make sure all children wear a helmet every time they go out on a board, bike or blades.

With her parents, Paul and Celeste Johnson (owners of Sushi on the Rock in La Jolla) she started Hannah’s Crusade, and plans to make sure the injuries and trauma she sustained don’t happen to anyone else. There was a kickoff party for Hannah’s Crusade at a private home in La Jolla on June 29.

As Celeste Johnson explained, while Hannah was skateboarding with her friend Sam Best, she fell and cracked her skull. When she arrived at the hospital, she was unconscious and unable to breathe because the portion of the brain that suffered the most impact was the area that helps control breathing. She was placed on a ventilator for the first few days, and remained in Intensive Care for eight days.

“It was such a devastating moment when we just didn’t know what was going to happen, if (our) child was going to live or not,” Celeste Johnson said, noting how slowly the time seemed to pass.

Luckily, Hannah gradually started to come back. She was soon able to breathe on her own and speak. There was no brain damage, speech impairment or major memory loss, though she was unable to remember the details of that day, or to smell, taste or hear out of her left ear.

Her damaged senses are healing, but she is still susceptible to fainting or seizures — any of which could lead to further damage or death — and she must undergo checkups on a regular basis.

“I don’t remember falling at all or going to the hospital; I just remember waking up and thinking, ‘what the heck?’ and being really mad and confused about why I didn’t wear a helmet. I should have,” Hannah said.

“I want to get the word out so no one else has to go through what I had to go through and be in the hospital. Some people have died from not wearing a helmet. I don’t want anyone to pass away and for everyone to be safe.”

Hannah’s message resonated for her 15-year-old brother, Nick, who was always resistant to wearing a helmet. After Hannah’s accident, he decided to go bicycling with his friends and voluntarily wore a helmet. He, too, suffered a fall, landing on his forehead and shoulder. Celeste Johnson explained that his shoulder got separated and that the emergency room physician said if he had fallen without a helmet, his brain would have separated.

“If he did not have his helmet on, he would either be a vegetable or he wouldn’t be here,” she said. “When he got back, he went right to Hannah and said, ‘You saved my life.’”

Though relieved her brother is OK, Hannah remembered the severe pain and frustration she felt and told her mother, “I don’t ever want another child to go through this. I don’t want my (twin) sister or friends to have to go through this.”

Celeste Johnson recalled, “At that moment, I thought something bigger than us was speaking through her and speaking to me about it. I could have gone home and cried and felt sorry for her and for myself ... but I think the important thing is that we are taking a really bad situation ... and getting out there and doing something about it.”

Hannah’s Crusade will become an outreach and education group. Hannah Johnson wants to visit schools and youth organizations to share her story and encourage children to always wear a helmet. The Johnsons are gathering pro-athletes, a parent of someone who lost a child due to a similar injury, and a teenager who is wheelchair-bound to join her in spreading the message.

The Johnsons are also developing a line of helmets that look cool and are made of durable materials to keep riders safe.