Against all odds
Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 30, 2016
LaGRANGE — Jayvianna Johnson’s smile and personality light up almost every room she walks into — almost like a beacon in the foggiest of nights.
The 18 year old is genuinely happy and can usually be found laughing and cutting up with Julie Smith, the woman she lovingly refers to as a sister, best friend and confidant all rolled into one.
The two share a special bond — one that was forged on the most horrific night of Johnson’s young life.
The teen was the sole survivor in a gruesome head on collision Feb. 8, 2013, on West Point Road.
In a matter of seconds, the crash killed Johnson’s mom, Miranda Hurston, 37; her brother, Tridarius Harrison, 16; her 1-year-old nephew, Quamauri Harrison; and a family friend, Melanie Lemmon, 23, who was four months pregnant at the time.
The teen’s sister, Shaquavious Harrison, 18, died a few days later from her injuries at a Columbus hospital.
The driver of the other car that collided with the family’s vehicle, Willie Hooks, 28, also perished in the wreck.
According to the Georgia State Patrol, Hooks was speeding and passing cars in a no pass zone when he crested a hill on West Point Road in the wrong lane and smashed head-on into the car carrying Jayvianna and her family.
Troopers determined the man was speeding and was intoxicated at the time of the accident.
Smith, a paramedic with American Medical Response, was one of ambulance crews that responded to the crash that night. She and her partner placed Johnson in their ambulance and drove her to a landing zone where the teen was airlifted to an Atlanta hospital.
Smith still vividly recalls the sight of the mangled cars. Johnson’s injuries and her fight to survive.
“I had nightmares,” she admitted. ” I almost quit my job. It was one of those emergency calls that makes you re-evaluate your life and your priorities.”
Smith was not the only one impacted by what they saw that night.
‘There’s a reason she’s still here’
EMT Robert Surowic and paramedic Erin Hackley, who also work for AMR, were the first medical personnel to arrive on scene.
“It was like, ‘Where do you start?’ We started trying to find out if anyone was alive … trying to figure out how to get into the vehicles,” Hackley said.
“You see two cars basically made into one,” Surowic remembered. “When we found Jayvianna, she was in the back seat thrown on top of everyone else. Everyone heard her take a breath, so we worked to get her out.”
AMR paramedic, Frederick Chamberlin, and his partner arrived next at the crash site.
“It was one of the most horrible scenes I’ve been on … and I’ve been doing this a long time,” Chamberlin stated. “… I didn’t expect anyone to survive that wreck … it was hard to go home that night. It was hard to sleep. It was hard to come back (to work) the next morning.”
Georgia State Patrol trooper Joel Puckett was the first law enforcement officer to reach the wreckage and helped first responders extract Johnson’s nephew from the car.
“That changed my career,” he paused. “It changed my life … not a day goes by that I don’t stop and think about it.”
On Friday, Surowic, Chamberlin and Puckett met the teen at AMR headquarters off Lukken Industrial Drive. It was the first time they had seen Johnson since that fateful February night.
The three men hugged and chatted with the girl they never thought would survive the horrendous crash.
“She is very lucky. She is a walking miracle,” said Surowic.
“It makes me happy to see her progress,” Chamberlin said. “It makes me happy to see her alive … I’m happy that we were there for her.”
Puckett said he was grateful for the chance to meet the teen.
“The other trooper that worked that night and I often wondered how Jayvianna was doing,” he explained. “It was nice to meet her … she’s a very pretty girl with a blossoming personality.
“We work so many wrecks and never know how the victims turn out,” Puckett continued. “Do they walk with a limp? Are they paralyzed? But it’s great to see Jayvianna … It makes you happy and proud to do what you do.”
Hackley agreed. She met Johnson one year after the wreck and believes the teen has great things in store for her future.
“There’s a reason she’s still here,” she said.
’This is the woman who saved my life’
Smith reconnected with Johnson at a benefit bike ride for the teen five months after the accident.
“I looked over and saw a pregnant lady. She was just staring at me and crying. I was like, ‘Why is she crying,’” Johnson said with a smile. “Then my dad said, ‘That’s the lady who saved you.’”
“I was told she had died,” Smith explained about her reaction to seeing Johnson for the first time since the crash. “Then I got a phone call from her dad, asking me to come to the benefit … I was in disbelief.”
Both said that chance meeting changed their lives.
“She came up to me and we started hugging,” Johnson said. “That hug was amazing. She held me for a long time. We were both crying … that made me realize that there are people out there that truly cared about me. It was an emotional moment for both of us.”
Smith and Johnson instantly bonded. A few months after the fundraiser, the two began getting together on a regular basis. The women said they would go out to eat dinner, go shopping or just hang out.
“We’d go eat and talk about the future she could still have,” Smith explained.
“She talked to me and made me feel good … she made me feel loved. She’s family,” Johnson said simply.
Smith even helped the teen pick out a dress for prom her junior year in high school.
Eventually, after a series of events, it seemed only natural that Johnson join Smith’s family.
In October of 2015, the teen moved into her home with Smith’s husband and four other children ages 8,6, 2 and 1, and was welcomed by everybody with open arms.
Smith already had a bedroom ready for Johnson.
“She’s a big part of the family,” Smith said. “The other kids refer to her as ‘sister.’”
“She’s like one of my own children,” she added. “Jayvianna deserves an amazing life … I wish I could go back and change the past, but I can’t. But she has changed my life in a profound way, and this shows that sometimes we do get our happy ending.”
“When people see me and Julie together and they ask me who she is, I say,’This is the woman who saved my life.’”
‘I will live the life I promised her I would’
But that ‘happy ending’ did not come easy for Johnson.
She suffered two broken legs, facial lacerations, a brain injury and permanent nerve damage from the crash.
“I had to learn how to walk again, how to talk, how to deal with my emotions … something I am still trying to deal with somewhat … catch up with my school work and deal with missing my family,” Johnson said.
The teen missed the rest of the school year and had to transfer to another school to catch up with her peers.
“It was difficult,” Johnson admitted. “I was still going through a lot of stuff and had a hard time remembering stuff because of my brain injury.”
The teen said she went to extra tutoring sessions and studied extra hard. By the time she re-enrolled in public school, Johnson was in the 11th grade and had more school credits than the rest of her class.
The teen’s motivation and determination to overcome obstacles helped her continue to excel academically and thrive socially.
Just last week, Johnson took her final exams — and graduated early from LaGrange High School.
The future continues to shine brighter for the teen. Johnson said in a few weeks, she and Smith’s entire family will move to Florida.
The teen stated she plans to enroll in college this fall, and she already knows what she’ll major in.
“I want to be an EMT,” Johnson said with a grin. “I’ve always wanted to help people. Then I see Julie do it, and I want to do it more … when I look back and I see what she did for me and everyone else … I want to do that too.”
The teen surprised Smith with her decision last week.
“I was shocked,” Smith said. “But I am proud. It also feels good to know you made an impression on someone.
“For her to survive that crash … I think God has something big in store for her,” she continued. “I want her to be successful. I want her to have a life where she doesn’t have to worry anymore. I want the same for her as I want for my other kids.”
Johnson remains focused on her future and optimistic about new opportunities. She does not like to talk about the accident and very rarely speaks to strangers about the family members who died in the wreck.
Her only reminder is a light blue bracelet she wears on her wrist, a gift from a fundraiser in her family’s honor. She said she never takes the bracelet off.
In truth, the teen does not remember the crash, something Smith said is probably for the best.
Johnson said she realizes the accident and long road to recovery was not by chance and believes it created a bright future she once thought was not possible.
“I’m happy. I’m living well. I’m going to make something of myself, and I have an amazing person helping me along the way,” Johnson exclaimed with a smile while looking at Smith.
“I’m proud of her,” Smith replied. “It was God’s will for her to live. My family and I are going to make sure she succeeds and goes places in her life.”
Johnson said her ultimate goal is to become a paramedic and eventually a nurse.
She is also determined to fulfill a promise she made years ago to someone she knows is watching over her — and happy for her.
“I’m going to tell everybody my testimony … I am blessed,” she said. “My mom didn’t raise a quitter … It’s my plan to make my momma happy. I will make my momma happy. I will live the life that I promised her I would.”