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Jump to: Road to Recovery, Racing Background, Mikes Goals, Mikes Stem Cell Surgery
Road to Recovery (go back to top of page)
Mikes Goals (go back to top of page)
Racing Background (go back to top of page)

Michael Johnson: "My goal is to become the first paralyzed driver to participate in the IndyCar Series and race in the Indy 500.".

On August 13, 2005, 12-year-old Michael Johnson took part in a dirt-track motorcycle competition at Hiawatha Horse Park in Sarnia, Ontario.

While making his move into the lead going into the last lap at the half-mile track, Michael ran out of tear offs and was wiping his helmet shield when he hit a rut, and veered off the track. His 250cc bike went between hay bales and crashed through a fence, sending him over the handlebars.

Michael broke his collarbone, right ribs, left ankle and left leg. He had also fractured the T5 and T6 vertebrae in his back that caused paralysis from the mid chest down.

Michael was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Sarnia, and then transferred to Children Hospital in Detroit.

Two days later, he underwent an 11-hour surgery, and he still has four rods and 15 screws in his back. In 2009, Michael had stem cell surgery and currently follows an aggressive physical therapy program in hopes to improve his condition. Nevertheless, he resolved to resume racing, setting a goal to become the first paralyzed driver to participate in the IndyCar Series.

Tim Johnson: “In terms of racing, it would be very helpful if Michael could get feeling back into his back and hip area so that he can feel the vibrations in the race car better and he can race more efficiently.”

During Michael’s stay at Children’s Hospital, he and his family attended a lecture by Dr. Carlos Lima of Portugal, a neurologist doing pioneering work in the regeneration of the spinal cord. Dr. Lima’s work involves harvesting stem cells from a patient’s nasal cavity and transplanting them to the sites of the spinal cord break in an effort to help regrow lost neural connections.

“Because of Michael’s age, Dr. Lima’s team didn’t want to do the surgery immediately. They wanted to make sure nature had done everything it could to bring him back first,” said Tim Johnson, Mike's dad. But the Johnson family stayed in touch with Dr. Lima and eventually met all the conditions for the surgery. The stem-cell transplant procedure was performed on Michael on Sept. 11, 2009. After surgery, Dr. Lima suggested Michael continue the recovery process at Walk the Line, a physician-directed training program for patients with spinal-cord injuries.

Michael has begun going three days a week to Walk the Line, where certified trainers work with him in an exercise-based program designed to activate muscles and nerves below the level of injury. Most exercises are done in weight-bearing positions so that the spinal cord can begin to recognize signals and work again.

“We’re very much encouraged by the progress so far,” said Tim. “In terms of racing, it would be very helpful if Michael could get feeling back into his back and hip area so that he can feel the vibrations in the race car better and he can race more efficiently.”

Racing again!

Michael spent nearly a year engaging in treatments, including skin grafts for pressure sores, before doctors gave him the okay to again participate in physical activities.

His father purchased a go-kart and secured hand controls originally developed by CRG for CART champion Alex Zanardi, who returned to competition after a crash in 2001 that resulted in the amputation of his legs. On Christmas Eve in 2006, Michael got into the go-kart and drove it around the parking lot of the paint-coating business that his father owns.

As a result of a successful parking lot test, Michael raced the go-kart in 2007 at the East Lansing (Mich.) Kart Track, taking first place in the Junior SuperCan class and earning "driver of the year" status at the track.

The following year, he finished first in the Rotax Junior class in Michigan and qualified for the Rotax nationals in Wisconsin. Then in 2009, Michael moved up to the Great Lakes Pro Series and scored six first-place finishes in the Rotax class, as well as twelve podium finishes in the Tag and Pro classes.

Michael says his experience with motorcycles helped him adapt to hand controls. "It's not too different, since I had to use my hands for the clutch and throttle on the bike. I can feel some parts of the kart, but I can't feel the front when it starts to push. I have to get extra seat time in the kart, and then I usually figure things out."

By 2002 and 2003, Michael had participated in a number of riding schools and was beginning to compete not only on a regional but also national level in the Kawasaki 65cc and CR85cc class.

On his 12th birthday in 2004, he raced a Honda CRF 150cc to third place in the Junior Red Riders Supermoto Challenge for competitors aged 12-16 in Reno, Nev.

That qualified him for the national Red Riders Challenge Final in Las Vegas, where he finished ninth. With that encouraging finish, Michael went into 2005 aiming to win the supermoto championship.

He won several races in supermoto, including (1st place Canadian Supermoto Series on 85cc, 1st place NasMoto Series champion in the 450cc).

He also ran in dirt-track competition that year, (1st place North East Regional National Champion on 85cc and 250cc).

In total Michael has won fourteen national Championships by the age of twelve.

Prior Injury- Motorcycle Career

Michael Johnson: "I'm never going to give up. Racing is my life,".

Michael Johnson: "I'm never going to give up. Racing is my life."

2009 was the first year Michael started to race in the Skip Barber formula car series, which were modified to be driven with hand controls. After a partial schedule in the Skip Barber series in 2010, Michael ran the entire Skip Barber summer series in 2011, scoring three wins, seven podium finishes, thirteen top five finishes resulting third in the overall championship.

In 2012 Michael will drive the # 54 Universal Coating / Coloplast / / RedLine Oil JDC Motorsports entry in all rounds of the 2012 Cooper Tires Presents the USF2000 National Championship powered by Mazda Series.

The series is the firts steps in the "Mazda Road to Indy" development ladder system that was introduced by the IndyCar Series in 2009 and is designed to advance career-minded drivers to the IZOD IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500.

Michael is inspired by Danica Patrick, who broke the gender barrier by winning an IndyCar race. Michael's goal is to bust barriers by becoming the first paralyzed driver in the IndyCar Series and to run the Indy 500, one of the most prestigious races in the world.

Mike's Stem Cell Surgery(go back to top of page)

I added this section to my website to explain the stem cell surgery I had in 2009 and to show the major advancements that are occurring in spinal cord injury treatments. Also, I feel it is important to share my story as it may help others as well as to dispel any negativity towards stem cell therapy and surgery.

When I had my accident my Dad had to research, learn and sort through what my options were. It was a daunting process. He wanted to find out what we could do to improve my quality of life and to help me be as independent as possible. I myself just wanted to get back to racing!

I had my stem cell surgery on September 11, 2009 in Lisbon, Portugal. We went to Portugal because this type of surgery is not yet approved in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration.

Stem cells are cells that have the ability to divide and develop into many different cell types in the body and can also help repair the body by dividing to replenish cells that are damaged by disease, injury, or normal wear. In my case, olfactory tissue that includes stem cells, was taken from my nasal cavity and transplanted in the area of my back where the injury is. Olfactory tissue has remarkable regenerative potential to rejuvenate the spinal cord. My stem cell specialist and surgeon, Dr. Lima, told me that my tissue contained approximately 400,000 stem cells and 4 million neurons and other supporting cells. Wow, it is amazing what goes on it our bodies!

Dr. Carlos Lima, is a neuropathologist and is an authority on olfactory tissue physiology. He is an amazing man. Anyone interested in contacting Dr. Lima, just let me know and I'll make it happen.

Based on the American Spinal Injury Association impairment scales for measuring spinal cord injury, I was classified as a T5-T6 paraplegic (middle of chest). Now, after my surgery and intensive rehab (3 days a week for 3 hours a day), I am classified as L1-L2 (just below the belly button) so things are changing and I am improving!

Many people ask me what I expect from this surgery and my rehab. I expect to walk again and I will. However, in the interim I am regaining feeling in my hips. I feel temperature changes in my legs. I can contract my lower abs, hip flexors, quads and hamstring muscles. This is all due to the surgery and rehab as well as my hard work. I am currently walking with a walker at my therapy sessions. I feel the difference and I will not give up!

It is important to point out that maximum restoration function requires aggressive rehabilitation. It is not a quick fix and I am dedicated to do what it takes. It is also important to point out that I did not use embryonic stem cells; this is where the controversy lies. I used stem cells from my own body.

My racing career is my true medicine for wellness both physically and mentally. I keep a positive attitude thanks to my racing.