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Always Hope: Injured Bemidji girl continues to improve

Hope Johnson of Bemidji challenges her mother, Gena Hasson, to a game of Rock'em Sock'em in the playroom at Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul. Hope is undergoing therapy at the hospital after a Jan. 6 vehicle crash, which severed her spine. Pioneer Photo/Molly Miron

Hope Elizabeth Johnson has a message for her friends at Bemidji's Central Elementary School: "I'm doing well."

She said this Friday as she focused on a video game in the playroom of Gillette Children's Hospital in St. Paul.

She had been issued a purple wheelchair a few minutes earlier and made her way down the hall from the room she shares with her mother, Gena Hasson.

"That's Mom's first good hug with you sitting up," said Hasson after lifting Hope into her new wheelchair. "This is the big moment. She's been wanting purple."

Hope and her mother had arrived Wednesday evening in Minnesota from Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colo., after a long day of travel.

On Friday, as Hasson worked out the nighttime tangles in her daughter's light brown hair, Hope pretended to scoot away to escape the brush and tiara hair holder.

"I'm good at wheeling," Hope said.

She added that she wants the wheelchair she will use when she returns home to be detailed with pink, purple and yellow flames.

The Bemidji 7-year-old was severely injured in a Jan. 6 vehicle accident as she and her grandmother, Marilyn Sickler, were returning from a visit in Nebraska.

Their vehicle veered across traffic on U.S. Highway 30 and struck a parked pickup hooked to a 20-foot gooseneck trailer loaded with cattle. Hope, who was buckled in her booster chair, suffered a severed spine, two fractures of her left leg and a face fracture. She is paralyzed from the waist down. Sickler, who was wearing her seat belt, suffered a broken hip and broken ankle.

Hasson said Sickler's vehicle transmission went out on the way to Nebraska. Sickler had the vehicle repaired while visiting family. Sickler and Hope left North Platte, Neb., after the transmission was repaired, Hasson said, but Sickler said she was unable to steer the vehicle. The accident remains under investigation.

Hasson said everyone is sending them condolences and sympathy, but she wants friends and relatives to know that Hope's room is really a happy place.

"We've been spared," she said. "God has been so good to us. We aren't planning a funeral. We get to bring home a whole kid."

Hope giggles when her mother tickles or smooches her. She can show her stubborn streak when reminded to say "please." And she looks forward to greetings posted on her CaringBridge guest book site at hopejohnson.

"I love when she smiles and you tickle her," said Hasson. "Her eyes get really big. She's the Princess Diva - that's what we call her at home."

After the crash, Hope was flown to Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colo., where she underwent surgery to repair her broken leg and had titanium rods implanted along her spine.

She also wears special pressure relieving braces lined with fake fur to prevent sores on her heels. Hope wasn't too keen about the foot gear, but giggled when Hasson called them "Diva Princess-ugh boots."

Hope will start school Monday with the Minneapolis School District, which assigns teachers to Gillette Children's Hospital. She will also continue therapy to strengthen her muscles.

"Guess what, Mommie - there's swimming pool in here, and I might be able to go in it," Hope said.

While Hasson stays with Hope, her older daughter, Ashlin, 15, is staying with her father, Craig McKechney, and his family in Litchfield, Minn.

Hasson said she didn't know if Hope would be able to attend the benefit dinner set for 1-6 p.m. Feb. 8 at the Bemidji American Legion Club. In any case, Hope will remain at Children's Hospital for a few weeks until she is self-sufficient.

For now, the family continues to look forward to all the things Hope is able to do, and not dwell on the things she can't do.

"Hope is not limited - she's challenged," Hasson said. "They have paraplegic skiers, basketball players. She'll be able to drive her own car. She'll be able to have boyfriends. She'll be able to get married."

But those accomplishments are in the future. Meanwhile, Hasson expressed gratitude for all the support and prayers Hope and her family have benefited from, as well as the generosity of the Bemidji community. She encouraged community members to become even more involved in helping those in need by offering to help at the hospital and praying for hope and recovery even for people they don't know.