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Published March 31 2013

Grand Rapids man recovering from gunshot to the head

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. - Paul Johnson’s life changed with brutal suddenness just before Christmas.

On the night of Dec. 22, Johnson and his mother, Rosemary Oberg-Johnson, 59, were shot and critically wounded inside the Grand Rapids home they shared.

Both were airlifted to Duluth, where Oberg-Johnson died from her injuries at St. Luke’s hospital six days later. Paul Johnson, with a bullet wound to the left side of his head, hovered between life and death at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center.

“It looked very dim for a couple of weeks,” said his father, Gary Johnson, who lives with his wife, Debbie, on Lower Balsam Lake about 25 miles northeast of Grand Rapids.

But Paul Johnson, 32, who loves stock car racing, fishing and camping, has lots of friends and family, his dad said. The power of their prayers, Gary said, made all the difference.

And so just before Easter, on Wednesday, Paul Johnson left the Miller-Dwan Rehabilitation Center at Essentia Health-Duluth. He moved back to Grand Rapids, where he’s continuing his recovery as one of four residents at North Country Care, an assisted-living home. He may be able to attend a fundraiser in his honor Saturday at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids.

Paul can walk a short distance with assistance but still mostly needs a wheelchair to get around. His clear, brown eyes comprehend everything that is said, but he struggles to form his thoughts into speech. Although he has no obvious scars, the upper left side of his head looks as if a section has been scooped out of it.

That will be corrected by surgery within a few weeks, said Gary, whose business is distributing Pepperidge Farm products. The overall healing process will take much longer, and there’s no telling how far toward a full recovery it will take Paul.

“It’s going to take up to two years before the healing is done,” Gary said. “Until he’s done, we have no idea what level he’ll reach.”

But Gary is optimistic because of how far his son has come since he first saw him on life support in the trauma unit at St. Mary’s. Bolstered by constant prayer support, Paul has experienced a series of miraculous events, his father said.

That started with the fact that the bullet that struck Paul’s head cracked his skull. If the skull hadn’t been cracked, the surgeon told Gary, it would have been impossible to operate, and Paul would have died.

A second miracle occurred on New Year’s Day when Gary and Debbie Johnson were with Paul, along with Paul’s friends, Ryan and Melinda Jensen.

Ryan put his hand on Paul’s, and then Melinda put her hand there as well, Gary recalled. To that point, Paul had never opened his eyes, but “the second she touched him, it was just like this: he turned his head a little bit and opened his left eye,” Gary recounted. “And when he did that, that was the beginning of his recovery. To me that was …”

He searched for the words, then: “Unbelievable.”

Ryan Jensen recalled that moment.

“We said a prayer with Paul and Gary and Deb,” Jensen said. “Right from that point on, my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘We’re going to get him back.’ We knew.”

The next day, Gary was alone with Paul.

“I grabbed his hand and I said, ‘Hey, this is Dad,’ and I told him: ‘I love you.’ And I’ll tell you what. He turned his head and looked at me and opened both of his eyes completely,” Gary said. “And this may sound a little weird. He couldn’t talk, but he told me: ‘It’s not my time to go.’ That’s the feeling I got. … I knew he was going to be all right.”

The turning points were followed by months of hard work that will continue for many months to come. Paul’s jaw was wired shut for the first three or four weeks, his dad said. When the wiring was removed and he could eat solid food, he gained strength quickly.

He was moved from the trauma unit to the rehab center, where there was a daily regimen of physical, speech, occupational and other forms of therapy.

On Wednesday, various therapists, assistants and nutritionists stopped by to bid Paul farewell. A box was filled with mementos, such as a montage of photos and the cards that had come almost daily from his uncle Randy Oberg in Arizona.

He had one last session with Terri Clark, a recreational therapist.

“Do you remember what we did yesterday?” she asked.

Paul, who was wearing a long-sleeved Harley-Davidson T-shirt, struggled to remember, or remembered but couldn’t find the right words.

But when Clark offered to show him how to use a fishing rod, his smile broadened and he said, “Yeah.”

She showed him how he could attach various rod holders to his wheelchair. Within minutes, he was making practice casts in the confines of a small kitchen and dining area.

Jen and Jayson Altenhofen watched from a hallway, waiting to help Paul, who is unmarried, make the move to North Country Care, which they own. They care for up to four men who are young and physically disabled, Jen Altenhofen said. One of the residents died shortly after Paul was shot, and they had been holding the place for him.

Jen Altenhofen has known Paul for about three years, she said; he once dated her best friend. She said she thinks Paul’s positive attitude might rub off on the other clients.

“I don’t know why it had to happen to him,” she mused. “He’s the nicest guy.”

What happened on Dec. 22 began when William Levi Payne, 26, of Bovey came to Rosemary’s home in pursuit of his estranged wife, Sarah Payne. He shot both Paul and his mother and kidnapped Sarah Payne but was arrested without incident a short time later.

Payne pleaded guilty last month and has been sentenced to 52½ years in prison.

Paul Johnson remembers nothing of what happened that night and knows only what he has been told. He knows that his mother died, but he may not have felt the full impact.

“Is he grieving normally?” Gary Johnson said. “No, he’s not. But in a way, that’s a blessing, too.”

Saturday’s fundraiser will be a chance to pay tribute to Rosemary Oberg-Johnson. “She was a very, very good mother,” Gary said. “We’ve been divorced for over 25 years, but she has always had Paul’s best interests in mind.”

Gary, who credits his wife, Debbie, with sustaining him through the crisis, doesn’t want to dwell on the shootings, he said. He’s more interested in the progress that has been made since and what the future holds.

Positive things have come out of the bad, he said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind the reason he’s here is the power of prayer,” Gary said. “That’s what’s helped him come to where he is right now, and it’s helped all of us.”

FUNDRAISER

“Paul’s Race to Recovery,” a fundraiser for Grand Rapids shooting victim Paul Johnson, is 3 p.m. Saturday at the IRA Civic Center, 1401 NW Third Ave., Grand Rapids.

Tickets are $10 and can be purchased through the Dutch Room in Grand Rapids. The event will feature a silent auction and “Paul’s Race to Recovery” merchandise for sale.

Also, checks can be made out to “Paul’s Race for Recovery” and dropped off or mailed to American Bank, c/o Paul Johnson Benefit, 1215 S. Pokegama Ave., P.O. Box 160, Grand Rapids, MN 55744.

More information is at facebook.com/paulsracetorecovery.