Sen. Tim Johnson's Second Chance at Life and Work

Exclusive: Bob Woodruff follows the South Dakota senator's road to recovery.

Aug. 28, 2007 — -- Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., addressed a crowd today in Sioux Falls, S.D., "Wow. You guys are a sight for sore eyes. It's good to be home."

It's been a long road home for the senator in the eight months since the brain hemorrhage that nearly killed him in December. In that time he's had to learn to walk again and to cope with speech slowed by aphasia.

"I am back and I promise you all that I will work harder than ever for you and for our state," Johnson said.

One thing Johnson, who will return to the Senate on Sept. 5, hasn't lost is his sense of humor.

"I will promise you that when my speech is back to normal, I will not act like a typical politician and overuse the gift."

"Of course, I believe I have an unfair edge over most of my colleagues right now — my mind works faster than my mouth does," he said. "I'm hoping that folks will focus more on my work than how quickly I walk these days."

Johnson has always been a straightforward, moderate Democrat from a mostly Republican state. He is a man so respected by his colleagues that they made him chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee. He is also the only senator with a son who has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When Johnson fell ill with what appeared to be a stroke, the outpouring of concern from both sides of the aisle was heartfelt and genuine.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters, "This is a time to pray for Tim Johnson's health, and I'll leave it to others to start doing political calculations."

Dec. 13, 2006

Shortly before noon on Dec. 13, 2006, Johnson was conducting a telephone news conference when his words began to falter.

"I looked at him and kind of gave him a sign like wrap it up. And he said, 'Frustrating.' He said frustrating, I think two times," Johnson's communications director Julianne Fisher said. "And I turned and looked at his scheduler and pulled her aside and said, 'I think he's having a stroke.' … By 12:15 he was probably in the ambulance and gone."

Johnson only recalls part of that day.

"I remember that time, and all the way to the emergency room— ambulance ride, the emergency room. And then I become vaguer. I don't remember anymore," he said.

Johnson was unaware that the scene outside George Washington Hospital quickly became a media circus, much to the dismay of his worried family and staff inside.

Johnson's wife, Barbara, told ABC's Bob Woodruff, "To look outside your hospital window and see five or six satellite trucks lined up and 60 or 70 members of the press — God bless you for what you do — but that day, you know, and for those couple of days, it was just overwhelming and we just want to pull back and let Tim heal. We just want to be together as a family."

The Beltway and the press buzzed with the possible consequences of Johnson's illness. The Democrats had just retaken the Senate by a slim 51-49 margin. If Johnson died, the Republicans might take back control.

"I had reporters that were yelling at me saying, 'Clearly you understand this is a 51-49 Senate. This is a big deal.' Which is incredibly offensive," said Fisher.

"One of our oldest sons said it best, he said, 'It's like our dad is a poker chip.' … The control of the Senate rested on him, and it was like who held the chip, who was going to win the poker match?" Barbara Johnson told Woodruff.

"All that fuss and the guest of honor was asleep," Johnson said.

Fisher said, "You know, no matter what all of us on the staff was going through, the family … all I kept thinking about was this family does not need to be hearing about this on national television right now."

Rare Brain Bleed

Johnson had brain surgery that night, and what doctors found was not the effects of a stroke, but rather an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.

"AVM is a rare tangle of veins in the brain that can sometimes cause a hemorrhage such as the one the senator suffered," said Johnson's neurologist Michael Yochelson.

"What happened was that he had a vascular malformation in his brain that he was not aware of, and so when it ruptured, it affected areas of his brain that caused the weakness on the left side. So that's the reason he was having difficulty with language, with walking," Yochelson said.

An estimated 300,000 Americans are born with AVM. Most go through life never knowing they have it, but for those who suffer a bleed, the effects can be devastating.

Johnson was fortunate that he got to the hospital so quickly, and that once there the neurosurgeon on duty just happened to be an AVM expert. Doctors removed the AVM from the senator's brain, and things looked good for a little while.

"When he first came out of surgery we were very optimistic because he was alert, he grabbed my hand," Barbara Johnson said. "We thought things were gonna just chug right along, but then his whole body, his lungs were impacted, the kidneys almost shut down because of all the chemicals you had to use to do the brain surgery."

Johnson was gravely ill. Doctors induced a coma as a means of keeping him alive.

A Wife's Medicine

It was January before the senator's condition was upgraded from critical to fair, and April by the time he was released from the hospital. Returning to his family home in suburban Washington, D.C., seems to have been a tonic.

"As I needed and wanted to get back home to thank so many people who have prayed and cared for me, the one person I want to thank most is my wife, Barbara," Johnson said today. "I cannot describe the love I have for this special woman. She has always been there for me."

Barbara Johnson told Woodruff this month: "I would tell the voters that I've learned a lot about Tim Johnson during the last months. I've learned that he is extremely determined. How he's gotten through this and maintained an even balance I will never understand, because I cannot maintain the balance that Tim maintains. And, you know, the sense of humor and just the, 'OK, I know what I have to do, and I'm going to go ahead and do it,' and he does it."

She says there are positive things that came from this difficult period.

"I love him more than ever," she said, "and we've had a lot of time together, and that's called quality time."

Visiting the Senator

Woodruff first met with the Johnsons in April, a few days before Tim left the hospital. His speech then was painfully slow, his ability to walk almost nonexistent.

Johnson engaged in a rigorous daily regime of speech and physical therapy to improve his walking and speaking. With each visit, Woodruff found the senator's condition improved.

Woodruff asked in June, "In six weeks, how have you improved?"

"Across every dimension, my right leg, my right arm, my speech, is all improved. Not, not much, but, all improved," Johnson said.

"He has not let up for a minute, that's the secret," said Paul Rao, Johnson's primary speech therapist and vice president of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington.

"Like you, the care was great, and I was at the right spot at the right time, in that my hospital … the doctors were around, and the hospital was nearby," Johnson told Woodruff in August.

By last week, the results were clear.

"He's ready to return to the Senate," Rao told Woodruff definitively.

"There's no question that he could be a functional senator?" Woodruff asked.

"He is a functional senator," Rao said.

"I see him every week or two, sometimes every week, and we send memos back and forth and he's — cognitively, he's just fine," said Drey Samuelson, Johnson's chief of staff.

Rao said: "His comprehension is virtually intact. When he has complex sentences or paragraphs, sometimes a challenge. But in terms of day-to-day conversation and communication, he's 100 percent. When you speak to Sen. Johnson and he makes a statement and he listens to what you have to say, I think you can take that to the bank."

Woodruff told Johnson last week, "I think people will be shocked at how well you move and speak."

Johnson said, "Yeah, but I'll be getting better as time goes on."

"What do they tell you — how many years will you be improving?" Woodruff asked.

"Forever," Johnson said with a laugh. "You constantly improve. Bit by bit, but constantly improve."

Johnson plans to run for re-election in 2008.

"I expect to run and to win," he said.


This weekend and on the eve of Johnson's return to public life, Barbara and Tim returned to their home in Sioux Falls for the first time since he became ill. Their three children, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren were there to greet them.

The senator stood before his constituents today, back from the fight of his life, and told them he is ready to serve.

"Never in my life have I been so grateful that you have been standing by my side as well. From the bottom of my heart, thank you South Dakota."