Since being shot 12 years ago, Christopher Johnson has learned to focus on solutions and be comfortable in situations where others might be uneasy. Those skills have helped him become a successful real estate agent, medical dispatcher and a leader of the Greater Boston Chapter of United Spinal Association.
Johnson is a licensed EMT and has spent the past nine years working for Boston Emergency Medical Service as a dispatcher, answering 911 calls and providing assistance while an ambulance is in route. His most rewarding calls are the ones in which he instructs a caller through the process of safely delivering a baby. These life-and-death situations are where his skills and expertise are most vital. “I’ve done quite a few baby deliveries over the phone,” he says. “On one call, the newborn had a nuchal cord, where the umbilical cord is wrapped around the neck. The caller was extremely calm, and I was able to instruct her to gently remove it. It worked out.”
Johnson’s life as a paraplegic began on the other end of a 911 call. After sustaining a gunshot wound, he required emergency care and assistance to survive. During his recovery, Johnson learned that his spinal cord injury would not be the most difficult hurdle to overcome. Figuring out how to move forward and live again was the most grueling challenge. Johnson says he remembers spending a lot of time sitting with his friends and family, reminiscing about everything prior to his accident. “Remember when we did this, remember when we went there,” he says. “I recall literally telling myself, ‘I’m tired of saying remember when. I have to get out there and create new memories and find things I can do.’ So that’s what I did.”
At the suggestion of Kenneth Mumford, a fellow gunshot survivor who ran Boston’s Wheelchair Sports and Recreation Association, Johnson joined the New England Blazers wheelchair basketball team. He then interned with an outreach and advocate training program through the Boston Public Health Commission and, after going through EMT certification, found a career as a dispatcher with Boston EMS.
He likes the job, providing instruction and talking people through stressful situations and sometimes being able to give people “a second opportunity to live.” One thing he’s taken away from nine years as an EMT? “Just try to remain calm no matter what. Don’t panic. Regardless of your situation, panicking never helps,” he says. “Instead of focusing on the problem, focus on the solution.”
That solution-based approach helps Johnson push his boundaries on a regular basis — whether it’s taking up scuba or diving into a second career. Johnson often works the graveyard shift as a dispatcher, and he recently decided to get a day job as well. About a year and a half ago he got his real estate license. When he started that process, he said friends in chairs would ask him, “How are you going to show properties if there are stairs or whatnot?” Johnson knew it might not be easy, but that he’d figure it out. “I have a friend of mine come along to pull me up the stairs, or if it’s a narrow or windy stair case, they’ll carry the chair up and I’ll bump up the stairs.”
The first year was rough, as he gained experience and learned the ropes, but Johnson sold four properties and has a fifth under contract. “It’s been going well,” he says. When asked if he recommends either real estate or dispatching to other wheelchair users, he brushes the premise of the question aside. “I would recommend that anyone in a wheelchair do whatever they want to do,” he says. “Choosing a career path that’s not necessarily wheelchair-friendly is just a matter of what you’re willing to put yourself through. I’ve always told anyone, whether your disabled or not, ‘Become comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s where you’ll begin to see yourself grow.’”
Providing a Safety Net
Johnson first got involved with United Spinal Association as a peer mentor before moving to an outreach advocacy position where he helped pioneer a program to help connect people with SCI to whatever resources they may need to live in the community.
“I would go out into the community to meet at-risk individuals who may have fallen through the cracks of the healthcare system. One of our main hospitals, Boston Medical Center, had just shut down its spinal cord injury floor and a lot of people were getting sent to nursing homes and kind of scattered about. I helped a number of people to get out of nursing homes. There was another lady who was in a nursing home and she didn’t have a wheelchair she could operate on her own. We were able to secure a grant and get her a power wheelchair. We were also able to help secure housing for a couple of other guys in Boston. Beth Weaver, the director of the chapter, was extremely instrumental in working with me and eliminating red tape so these individuals could get the services and the products they needed. We try to just meet them in the community where they are and be a resource and help them not to feel alone in their situation.”
Can’t Work Without:
Most dispatchers use a foot pedal to transmit over the radio. I have something like a space bar that sits on a platform that I can use with my hand.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
My mentor Dave Estrada asked me to come visit a kid who was a gunshot survivor. Unfortunately, he wasn’t really wanting to take anyone’s advice. I thought I was just visiting this one kid, but they asked me to be a volunteer mentor and I did.