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UK Orthepedic Surgeon reflects on family's COVID-19 battle

Posted at 9:09 PM, Mar 31, 2021

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — It’s been three months since the last member of the Johnson family was discharged from the hospital after a hard-fought battle with COVID-19, but the emotional toll the virus took on the family has not faded into memory yet.

Dr. Darren Johnson is the chief of UK HealthCare Sports Medicine and the team physician for UK’s Football team and Women’s Soccer team. He’s tested frequently for COVID-19. He tested positive for the coronavirus days after a Sunday night dinner with his eldest daughter’s family the week before Thanksgiving.

“In retrospect, that was ground zero,” Dr. Johnson said.

The entire family tested positive for COVID-19 in the following days. While Dr. Johnson remained asymptomatic in the first days, his 27-year-old daughter Kelsey Johnson Latimer was admitted to the hospital because she was 19 weeks pregnant and they wanted to keep a close eye on the baby.

It wasn’t long before Dr. Johnson began struggling to breathe and ended up in the COVID-19 ICU of the UK Albert B. Chandler Hospital.

“My neck still hurts from watching the [oxygen monitor] for nine days,” he said. “That’s the only thing you got to go on. If that monitor goes south, I’m in trouble.”

While Dr. Johnson battled with COVID-19, his daughter’s own oxygen levels began dropping and she was moved into the ICU.

“Every couple of days my daughter is getting worse,” Dr. Johnson said. “I mean, the guilt. This is your daughter and your future granddaughter that you gave [the coronavirus] to. Everyone says, ‘Darren, you can’t think like that.’ How am I supposed to think?”

Dr. Johnson said family members and hospital staff tried to hold off on telling him about how quickly Kelsey’s condition was going downhill.

“I knew the whole time. They didn’t have to tell me,” he recounted.

Dr. Johnson had a lot of time to think about his and his daughter’s conditions due to the isolation of the COVID-19 unit.

“There were some nurses that took care of me that I think saved my life,” he said. “They came in and they held my hand and said, ‘Darren, you’re going to be alright.’ I just needed someone to tell me that, even if they weren’t telling me the truth.”

Dr. Johnson was hospitalized for nine days. On the day he was discharged, Kelsey was still in her own hospital bed a few doors down with doctors monitoring her closely. If she worsened, they would have to put her on a ventilator. As Dr. Johnson was leaving, the hospital staff asked if he’d like to visit his daughter.

“I couldn’t go into that damn room,” he said. “I just emotionally could not go in that room. If I went in, I don’t know if I could have left.”

Instead, he waved from outside the door. But, he believes, that’s all Kesley needed to see.

“People say, ‘Darren, you’re crazy for thinking this,’ but I think she needed to see her dad was okay. That let her get better,” Dr. Johnson said. “She needed to see that I was okay and all of a sudden, she was like, ‘I’m coming home on this day.’”

After being hospitalized for more than two weeks, Kelsey began improving and was finally able to go home. The reunion with her two-year-old son was emotional, and so was the reunion with her father.

“That first time she came over, we cried. We made it. We made it out,” Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. Johnson said he feels lucky and blessed that his family was able to defeat the virus, knowing how deadly it can be.

The Latimer baby, who Dr. Johnson referred to as ‘the miracle baby’, is expected to be born in the next few weeks.

But even with the birth of a new granddaughter on the horizon and his family’s health back in full, Dr. Johnson said their experience with COVID-19 won’t be easily forgotten.

“I think we’re through the physical part, but I think the mental part is still there,” he said. “And I think that’ll take a while.”