She was back in the University of Cincinnati Medical Center the other evening – an hour and a half away from her husband, her two young children and the life she longs to live again – but Melissa Johnson still shared a story that made her laugh.
“We have a joke with our daughter’s teacher,” said the former women’s basketball coach at Earlham College. “She’s known when I was in the hospital without me ever having to tell her. She’d just look at my daughter and see if she came to school with her hair done or not.
“Daddy’s had a lot of learning to do when it’s come to Jayden’s hair.”
Nick Johnson, Melissa’s husband and the head football coach at Earlham, had agreed with that point as he sat in his office that afternoon and discussed some of the new “Daddy Duties” he’s taken on in the almost unfathomable challenges of the last few years.
Reading with 8-year-old Jayden and her 7-year-old brother Jacob has been easy, as has been helping with homework and saying nighttime prayers with them. But there have been other times when he’s been out of his depth.
“My wife’s a very organized, Type A person who can juggle everything,” he said. “I’ve had to develop some multi-tasking skills. I’ve had to try to do a ponytail on my daughter while handling a recruiting call on the phone, all while telling my son to get out the bathroom so we can go to school.”
The few times he’s had to cook – when Melissa’s mom, their Richmond neighbors, fellow church members or part of the Earlham community hasn’t supplied meals – has been “pretty bad” he admitted.
And then there’s been his daughter’s hair.
“There are a couple of photos from picture days at school when you can tell Dad was at home, not mom,” he laughed.
Yet, as is sometimes the case, for full appreciation of a picture, you sometimes need a better vantage point. In the case of the Johnsons, it means stepping back from those 2-by-3 inch school photos and looking at the much bigger portrait of the family’s life these days.
That’s when you see Nick’s masterful touch.
“If you looked in the dictionary at the phrase – ‘perfect dad’ – you’d see Nick’s picture beside it,” Melissa said. “He’s the most amazing dad you can imagine. No slight to him, but he far surpasses what I thought he’d be as a father.”
Then again he’s had to do so once Melissa’s medical situation upended their normal routine some three years and three months ago.
Until that point the Johnsons seemed to be living the perfect life. Both Nick and Melissa had been standout athletes at Earlham College. She had been a three-time captain of the women’s basketball team; he a four-year football letterman and multi-event track and field competitor.
Then after four years as the Quakers assistant coach, Melissa took over the basketball program and in her third season the team went 12-13, the women’s best record in 11 years.
At the time Nick was assistant coach in track and field and football. They had the two beautiful children and a lot of big dreams.
Melissa was in the best shape of her life – running mini-marathons, working out in the weight room, taking part in drills with her team – so it seemed like no big deal when she went for a hysterectomy in March of 2014.
But soon after came severe abdominal pain and she was rushed to the hospital. A blood clot was discovered in a lung and she was diagnosed with severe acute pancreatitis.
Over the next year, she’d have a dozen bouts of pancreatitis, several trips to the ICU and some 200 days in the hospital. An intestinal blockage threatened her life, she lost 42 pounds from her 5-foot-9 frame until she weighed just 108 and she ended up on a feeding tube.
She went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and then to UC, where she underwent a rare surgery to remove her pancreas, transplant cells from it into her liver and have a new digestive track created.
Three months later as she was recovering, her pituitary and adrenal glands shut down. She was vomiting uncontrollably, her blood sugar was out of control, an infection developed in an IV port and spread throughout her body and there were seizures.
She was taken by a life flight helicopter from Richmond’s Reid Health to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where doctors attended to her swollen brain and a cerebral spinal leak. Nick said she briefly was in a coma and afterward had difficulty talking, walking and memory.
In the past three years, she’s undergone 15 surgeries, had all or part of 13 organs removed and spent over 600 days in various hospitals.
Nick likened the ordeal to being caught in the corner of a boxing ring by Mike Tyson in his heyday and being pummeled nonstop: “It’s been a devastating onslaught, just one blow after another,” he said. “And just when you think you’re getting up, another thing knocks you down. The encephalitis caused some brain damage, digestive issues and pulmonary issues.
“But let me tell you something, she keeps fighting her way through it. I knew for a long time she’s exceptionally strong individual. And she has a hidden resilience that just keeps showing itself. I’m honored to be associated with that type of character and toughness.”
Some of the people who have treated Melissa have been impressed as well.
“Doctors mentioned that chronic illnesses as severe as mine often damage a lot of marriages, but we are blessed,” Melissa said. “This actually has brought us closer.”
As Nick put it: “Everyone has to make decisions in their life. And when you end up with some kind of crisis that decision becomes “Do I conquer it?’ or “Do I cower from it?’”
As far as threatening his marriage, he shook his head:
“Maybe I’m just old school, but I made a commitment when I stood up there at that altar. I told everyone she was the woman for me. I promised not only myself but Melissa, her family and God that I’d be there in sickness and in health, for better or for worse.
“And if I want the guys around our football program to honor their commitment, the least I can do is honor the promise I made to my wife and kids. She’s doing the same with me.
“And we love each other all the more.”
‘Happiest point of my life’
“I first noticed her at the front desk out there,” Nick said with a grin as pointed down the hallway that runs between the athletic offices.
“I was standing there talking to one of my friends and she was coming from the training room or something and wanted to get by. But as you can see, I tend to take up a lot of space.”
Although he was not the 270 pounds he is today, he was a sizeable 6-foot-3 junior defensive lineman who had come out Fort Wayne’s North Side High School.
Melissa Liffich was freshman basketball player out of Whiteland just south of Indianapolis.
“She was dribbling a basketball and the next thing I know she uses a spin move or maybe dribbled behind her back, but she was past me,” he said. “And I said to myself, ‘That girl’s more of an athlete than I thought.’”
At the time one of his friends was dating her roommate and soon after he said he visited them: “His girlfriend had said it’d be nice if I met Melissa, but when I got there she just kept doing her homework. She paid no attention to me.”
Chuckling at the remembrance, Melissa said she hadn’t been interested in a boyfriend, but “he quickly won me over. He was so kind and caring. So loving. And he had such a great sense of humor. You just couldn’t not like him.”
In 2005, two years after Melissa graduated, they were married. A few years later came the children and then the head coaching job.
“That was the happiest point of my life,” she said. “Then a routine hysterectomy turned into a medical crisis.”
Just as her condition was worsening, Nick was offered Earlham’s head football job in hopes he could resurrect the moribund NCAA Division III program that was riding a 13-game losing streak, hadn’t had a winning season since 2000 and had had only three winning seasons in the past 43 years.
Worried about the time and energy he now needed to care for his family, he planned to turn down the offer until Melissa insisted he take it.
It’s been a daunting challenge since. His undermanned teams – last season’s squad finished with 37 players, half freshman – have gone 0-10 in each of his first two years and the Quakers losing streak is now 33 games in a row, the longest in college football at any level.
And yet the job he’s done isn’t simply captured by the scoreboard numbers.
Johnson was named the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2015 because his peers said no one was more deserving.
After Bluffton topped Earlham, 54-20, last November, Beavers coach Denny Dorrel praised Johnson to the Richmond Palladium-Item:
“It’s the way he carries himself. He’s a God-fearing man. There’s things in his life right now that he’s up against and we respect the heck out of him. He’s a success story in our mind no matter what his team’s record is. (His) team fought until the end and the reason they fought is because they love that guy.”
While others see it on the football field, his kids see it at home.
“When we’re not winning and it’s really tough, I go home and I’m still Daddy,” he smiled. “It’s ‘Pick me up, Daddy! Pick me up!’ It’s playing with my son, jumping off the couch and giving an elbow drop.
“To them, no matter what, I’m still Superman.”
Back to the sidline, then another setback
Earlier this year Melissa made considerable improvement and her doctor finally cleared her to return to the sideline. On March 15, Earlham announced she would reclaim her head coaching job within a few weeks.
“Melissa’s return to the coaching ranks is more than just an announcement, it’s a celebration,” athletics director Mike Bergum said at the time.
But soon after she had another setback. Diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syndrome, she was told by her doctors she was no longer healthy enough to coach.
On April 24th Earlham announced she was stepping down and the search for a new coach would begin.
“She was devastated,” Nick said. “It was devastating to both of us. I was really looking forward to having ‘Our Miracle’ and by October, hopefully we’d have a win with our football team, and I’d be able to see her on the sidelines coaching again.”
This past Tuesday evening – following a couple of weeks at their Richmond home – Melissa, now 120 pounds, was informed by her doctors that her counts were low and she needed to come back to UC for some tests and treatment.
The trip to the hospital tugged at the kids Nick said: “All of a sudden, it’s like the Bogeyman’s back.”
“Even though our kids have been part of it all the way, they still have raw emotions,” Melissa said. “They’re young and they still really miss their mom.”
Nick said their daughter was in tears.
But while Jacob used to be the one who had trouble “processing the whole sense of loss” and would break down in tears at school, his dad said, he tried to remain stoic this time.
“Now he tries to act like big boys don’t cry,” Nick said. “And he told me something that really made me step back. He said, ‘Well, Daddy, it’s probably for the best. If we want her to be home again longer, we want to make sure the doctors can do everything for her.’
“He’s just seven!”
Melissa said at the hospital she and Nick try to add some fun for the kids: “We’ll do laps around the unit and work on math or spelling. On the weekends when they come, we’ll do Legos together because it’s something where they can sit up on the hospital bed with me.”
Nick said Jacob has shown a real embrace of math: “From the time he was little, he was counting how many syringes he saw. How many IV poles he saw.”
He said Jayden has now developed a real empathy for people.
In turn, the family has been embraced by people back home, Nick said.
Along with the meals, people have bought the children Christmas presents and friends and family members often help picking the kids up from school or Jayden from dance lessons and practices for her travelling basketball team.
Because of the soaring medical bills, Melissa’s cousin started a YouCaring page — entitled “Help Mel Fight” and found at www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/help-mel-fight/232697 — to raise funds for the family. The goal was $100,000 and as of Saturday morning, 800 donors had pledged $77,385.
Nick said things are slowly getting a little better: “Yeah we’re out of the forest and can see the highway again, but there’s still some trees to get through, still some obstacles to climb.”
And Melissa believes Earlham football also will be getting better soon:
“It takes time. I have complete faith Nick will turn the program around.
“And even if he’s not winning football games yet, he’s winning at saving my life. He’s my rock. He and the kids are the whole reason I’m still standing. They are my reason to breathe. My reason to live.
“And now if the doctor can just get my digestive system working properly, I believe that at some point the pain will end, the storm clouds will part and the sun will shine again.
“I just want to get back to a regular life again. Some things I know will be different because of all this, but I’ll just have a new normal and start reclaiming some of the moments I’ve lost.”
And when she does there will be no more concerns about picture day at school.