Former Patient Discovers Himself on His Journey to Teach Others

Sean Johnson had just returned from serving in the Air Force in Operation Desert Storm when his life changed forever—he was shot in the back and paralyzed during a domestic dispute in his West Philadelphia neighborhood. He now shares his story with Magee Rehabilitation’s Think First Program to teach others how to make good life choices.

Sean Johnson reaching for the ball during a wheelchair basketball game.

Rehabilitation, Recovery and Complications
Sean’s L3 incomplete spinal cord injury left him paralyzed from the waist down. Extensive rehabilitation at Magee helped him recover far past what anyone expected.

“Magee was such a safe haven for me,” said Sean. “I had immense anxiety about going back into the world, but the staff prepared me for life as a disabled person in the real world. I developed a mentality to push past what I thought my limits were—and that’s where the magic happened. My doctors told me to prepare to live my life in a wheelchair and then I was walking again a year after I was discharged.”

Then, after two decades of walking with a brace, Sean’s right leg had to be amputated when a blister on his leg had become infected with MRSA, a bacteria resistant to antibiotics. He says the loss of his leg actually improved his quality of life in many ways.

“Now that I am wearing a prosthesis, I have more mobility, less back pain and an ability to stay active more often,” he explained.

Teaching Others How to “Think First”
After his recovery, Sean became a Voice for Injury Prevention (VIP) speaker in Magee’s Think First Program—a nationally-coordinated assembly education program raising awareness about brain and spinal cord injury prevention by teaching students about anatomy, safety and the importance of good decision-making skills.

Sean has spoken with thousands of students about his injury. He teaches them to take accountability and responsibility for their actions and avoid bad decisions by setting high standards and never compromising them.

“Although my accident wasn’t typical of those with spinal cord injuries, the message I share with everyone is about making good life decisions,” he said. “My injury happened because of a series of choices I made. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about the importance of setting high standards for myself and surrounding myself with positive people. That’s what I share with these students.”

At the end of every presentation, Sean asks the students to take a pledge: “I will think first.” He shared, “I never thought I would be shot, paralyzed and close to death. I didn’t see that life. But if I took another second to think before I made any decisions that night, it could have changed the trajectory of my story.”

The power of Sean’s story reaches across cultural boundaries. “It’s almost like music; we connect through storytelling. I speak to kids of all races and ages, and it’s a great way to get in touch with my humanity and connect with others whose experiences may be much different from mine.”

The most rewarding part of the Think First Program, Sean shared, is receiving letters from kids telling him the impact he’s made on their lives. He is grateful to Magee for helping him get his life back and for providing a platform for him to help others.

Do you know a school or community group that would like a free Think First presentation? For more info, please contact Keith Newerla: or 215-587-3412.

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