It was winter that drew Todd Johnson to Summit County in 1992, followed by summer, both rife with possibility for outdoor recreation. While the seasons attracted him — a common tale in the High Country — it was the people who finally sealed the deal.
“Over time, I found out the people are just so generous,” Johnson said. “My friends became my family and that’s what kept me here.”
Like many young boys, Johnson entertained fantasies of growing up to be a firefighter. Unlike most, however, he never fully let go of the idea. So when the opportunity to volunteer for the Red, White & Blue fire department came up, he jumped at it. He loved the work and was ecstatic when, in 2000, the department decided to hire three full-time firefighters.
“Becoming a firefighter in 2000 with Red, White & Blue was the most amazing experience for me because I was getting paid to drive a fire truck and help people, which is the best career in the world. I had the dream job,” said Johnson.
When not on the job, he was as active as possible, taking full advantage of the county’s wilderness. He was also an avid athlete, always up for game of softball or basketball.
Out of the blue
It was during a competitive game of softball that Johnson’s life changed forever.
The ball was hit, went up into the air and Johnson jumped to catch it. The next thing he knew, he was down on the grass, struck by a sudden seizure. Fortunately, he was surrounded by teammates and fellow firefighters, who rushed to his aid.
“Everything about that was so lucky,” he said.
When the diagnosis came back, it wasn’t good. Doctors found a large brain tumor, parts of which were deemed inoperable.
The news shocked Johnson, who had experienced no other symptoms and thought himself in perfect health.
He decided to act quickly and aggressively, asking doctors to remove as much of the tumor as possible. The operation was risky and interfered with his motor skills, leaving him paralyzed on his left side.
Painful months followed, filled with physical and emotional struggle as Johnson navigated physical therapy and further cancer treatment. He had to re-learn basic movements like walking, tying shoe laces and throwing a ball, creating new neural pathways. Still, he was determined. In less than a year, he walked out of the hospital under his own power, of which he’s very proud.
Summit County rallied around Johnson, throwing a fundraiser to help with medical bills. More than 200 friends, firefighters and community members attended to show their support.
“It was so overwhelming and amazing,” Johnson said.
Despite the difficulty to regain control of his left side, it didn’t take Johnson long to get back outdoors and resume doing the activities he loved. He went snowboarding the same year as his surgery and returned to mountain biking and road biking as well. Today, Johnson has regained nearly all control of his movements and can often be found out on the trails.
In 2010, two years after his surgery, Johnson added a new member to his family circle. He adopted Buddy, a small terrier mix, from the Summit County Animal Shelter. It didn’t take long for the two to become inseparable.
“Right away, I sensed how intelligent he was and how he was drawn to people that seem to need love,” Johnson said.
Soon, Johnson realized that Buddy’s ability to calm and comfort was something that could be turned outward to help others as well as himself. Working with local groups, he trained Buddy to become a certified therapy dog. Their first stint took place at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center’s summer camp for adults with traumatic brain injuries. Johnson went to speak with the group and brought Buddy along as an icebreaker.
“Buddy just naturally went around to each lap,” Johnson said, smiling at the memory. Johnson spoke with the group, while Buddy circulated. “I feel like I was working harder than Buddy,” Johnson recalled with a laugh. “He just had to sit there and be petted.”
Johnson hopes he and Buddy can continue to do therapy work in Summit County. He sees it as one way to give back to the community that gave so much to him.
Although he has regained his ability to do the sports and activities he loves, Johnson’s journey with cancer is still not over.
“I don’t think anyone is ever done with cancer,” he said. “…So I do what I can to follow a healthy lifestyle.”
That’s made easier by his surroundings, including the mountains that keep him busy and the friendships that make him smile. Johnson also has his own special brand of humor to fall back on. During his interview, he concocted elaborate and far-fetched answers to questions to get a laugh, from claims about coming from a Mafia background to boasts of astronaut training and competitive tree climbing.
“In all seriousness, I moved out here because I fell in love with the mountains and, just as importantly, the friendships I’ve made over the 20 years I’ve lived here, how my friends have become my family,” he said. “… And after being diagnosed with cancer, I found that living here in the mountains and being surrounded by my amazing friends could be no other better healing process for me.”