For 30 years, Physical Therapist Nancy Johnson’s cheerful disposition and big heart have brought comfort and relief to her patients.
Easing the pain, rehabilitating the body and strengthening the souls of others is a rewarding job, a wonderful profession, said the 53-year-old Auburn woman. “I love what I do, I absolutely love it,” a smiling Johnson said, fidgeting in her tidy, tiny office at Lakeland Sports & Spine Physical Therapy.
But Johnson was dealt a severe blow on July 17, 2013, the day doctors told her she had early-onset Alzheimer’s. The devastating disease is rarely diagnosed in people younger than age 65, but as Johnson quickly realized, Alzheimer’s is not just a disease of old age.
More than five million people in the U.S. live with Alzheimer’s, a brain disease that robs them of their ability to think and remember. Only 5 percent of those with Alzheimer’s develop it in their early-to-mid 50s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, a leading voluntary health organization devoted to the care of sufferers and to researching the disease.
The news hit the Johnsons very hard.
“It’s not been easy,” Joel Johnson said of his wife’s condition. “We don’t get to choose how we come in and how we leave. We do get to choose how we approach the difficulties and challenges in life.”
The Johnsons have been resolute, but Nancy’s fading skills have forced her to close her practice. Her last day of work was Dec. 18.
Early retirement has been difficult to accept.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s hard to let go.”
Matt Fenstermaker, a doctor of physical therapy, will continue as clinic director. The staff remains intact.
Active in the Auburn community, the Johnsons have built a successful business. Joel, a physical therapist, owns three clinics, including the one in Lakeland Hills, where Nancy has worked and which she has directed ever since the clinic’s inception in 2003.
Nancy has been a big part of the clinic’s success. The practice has grown in clientele over 11 years, the center’s space doubling in size more than a year ago.
“She’s had an amazing career of impacting people,” Joel said. “She has attracted so many people to come here.”
A 1985 graduate of the University of Puget Sound, Nancy launched her physical therapy career in 1985 at Good Samaritan Hospital. She worked in neurological rehabilitation and in a skilled nursing environment when her children were young. She switched to orthopedics in 2001 with the opening of Renton Sports & Spine Physical Therapy, then helped open the Lakeland Hills office two years later.
In retirement, Nancy plans to stay active, volunteer in the Auburn community and travel with family. Daily exercise is important, she said, and staying connected to others.
Nancy has served for many years as a Rotarian, volunteered in schools and coached youth soccer for Auburn Parks. The family business has contributed to many charities, including the Auburn Food Bank.
The Johnsons celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary on Monday. They have raised three sons.
They are approaching Nancy’s situation in a positive way. Broadly speaking, the disease is not life-ending but it is under-publicized compared to cancer and other maladies.
“We’re not going to change how we approach life,” Joel said. “We’re not going to crawl under a rock and hide.”
When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, friends and family unintentionally pull away, Nancy has observed.
“They just don’t know what to say to you,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m still your neighbor, your friend, movie pal and your coworker.”
Joel stands by her side, her greatest supporter. He encourages her – one step, one day at a time.
For the couple, it helps to laugh about it. Levity is medicine, too.
“It gets you through it,” Nancy said.
For more information on early-onset Alzheimer’s disease or to donate, visit www.alz.org.