By SHANE RICHARD BELL
Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press
AJ Johnson lives a life of miracles.
To AJ Johnson, miracles are like stepping stones in a pilgrimage to purpose.
The Post Falls native grew up like many in North Idaho. Work hard, raise a family, and go to church on Sunday.
“My parents raised me right,” said Johnson.
By the summer of 1990, Johnson was living well. He graduated from high school, started his own construction company, married the woman of his dreams, and had become a father to his first son.
Though busy with his new life, Johnson wanted a hobby. After his wife surprised him with a scuba diving package, he was hooked.
He explored the waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Lake Pend Oreille, and the Puget Sound. He visited shipwrecks, and marveled at the floors of forgotten history. He taught lessons and soon volunteered for search and rescue.
While training for the search and rescue team, everything changed.
Johnson remembers every detail of the moment that redefined his life. It was August of 1990.
“I was at Kidd Island Bay,” Johnson said. “We were doing cadaver training. Because of the visibility, which was none, you had to cover the area with your hands.”
Then he ran out of air.
His partner surfaced, giving Johnson his spare air. The boat looped around the bay and missed his partner.
But the driver of the boat didn’t see Johnson.
“It just so happens as I pop up the prop caught me right in the face. Both eyes were detached. It basically took my face off. I could not see anything. This is where the Lord comes in,” Johnson said.
His friends compressed his wounds, and called for help.
“That’s the first miracle,” Johnson said. “Normally just the accident alone would kill you from the shock.”
Johnson was rushed to Kootenai Medical Center. Everyone around him, Johnson recalls, kept saying he wasn’t going to make it.
At one point Johnson was pronounced dead.
But Johnson clung to his life, weeping bitterly and thinking: “I don’t want to die, I just got married. I have a brand new son. I don’t want to die.”
Within minutes, Johnson was being transported to Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane via emergency helicopter.
“They put me underneath the helicopter in the black cocoon. You can’t see anything, you’re all zipped up.”
While in the cocoon fighting for his life, something came over Johnson.
“I felt totally calm and peaceful. I quit crying. And I knew I was not alone,” Johnson said. “The Lord let me see the whole trip, even though I couldn’t see. I remember, the vision, the view, all along the Spokane River and all of my surroundings and it’s just the perfect trip.”
Once again, Johnson was pronounced dead at Sacred Heart. Johnson was admitted to the ICU, and treated for severe eye, face, and brain injuries. Later the doctors told him his head was swollen to the size of two basketballs.
Johnson was stabilized, only to begin a lifelong battle of physical restoration.
A year later, Johnson was still in the hospital for reconstructive and rehabilitative care.
“I had to relearn all of my presidents, who I was, how to walk, talk, everything,” he said.
While Johnson was hospitalized, his wife left him.
“My wife couldn’t handle it. It completely devastated me,” Johnson said. “I was completely in love with her.”
His family was a constant source of support, though, visiting him several times per week. Friends, and community suddenly became his everything.
“The community just surrounded me,” Johnson said.
Friends and family organized fundraisers to pay for his living and medical expenses.
“They blessed me with money because I had nothing coming in,” Johnson said.
Three and a half years later, Johnson was able to work construction with his brother on light duty, despite a blind left eye and poor vision in his right.
Johnson hasn’t looked back since.
In fact, 22 years later, Johnson remembers the miracles more than anything else.
Recently Johnson decided to go back to college to study computer science as a second career.
The American Association of the Deaf-Blind offered to help fund his education, but urged him to first schedule an eye examination for his blind left eye at the North Idaho Eye Institute.
Johnson made the appointment, and saw Dr. Stephen Moss this last September.
During the exam, Johnson read the letters. He could see how many fingers Moss held up.
“I could not explain it,” Moss said. “Periodically there are patients such as Mr. Johnson who make inexplicable improvement.”
Johnson wept with joy. For the first time in 22 years, he could take the patch off his left eye and see.
“That’s a living, walking, breathing miracle right there,” Johnson said. “All of it was a miracle. And it is all documented.”
Then it hit Johnson.
The week before the exam, Josh Warnick, 22, of Coeur d’Alene, prayed for Johnson at a church service at New Life Community Church.
Before the service, Josh felt inspired to pray for Johnson, a complete stranger.
“God told me to pray for him and I was like, ‘I don’t want to, I don’t even know him,” Warnick said.
They prayed together, feeling a sense of peace, but Johnson still couldn’t see.
A week later, shortly after Johnson’s appointment with the eye doctor, Warnick got a call that AJ had been healed of blindness in his left eye.
“I almost didn’t believe it,” Warnick said. “It just makes you feel really small. God did speak to me to pray for him. Even though I didn’t see it at first, God’s always working. He can do supernatural things that are impossible through medicine.”
“I couldn’t stop telling people,” Johnson said.
He volunteers at the Altar Church, as an usher and a leader of the soup kitchen, which serves dinner to 100 to 200 people every Monday night.
He also runs transitional housing for men who’ve graduated from the Altar’s Good Samaritan program, a Christian-based drug and alcohol rehabilitation center.
“I am just entirely blessed,” Johnson said. “When we go and speak about what’s happened in our lives, it brings others to him. It’s all just a beautiful thing.”
Through Johnson’s eyes, his story is a parallel of when Jesus heals the blind on the Sabbath. The Pharisees wanted to persecute Jesus for healing the blind on the Sabbath. “But Jesus says,” Johnson quotes, “’I am doing my father’s work; I heal the blind and now they can see.’”
“And that’s what he’s doing with me,” Johnson said. “He opened my eyes to the love he has for me from Day 1 to now. I walked in blind faith when I was blinded. Now I totally see.”