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Former US Olympic skier fights serious infection

July 17, 2013

Former Olympic downhill champion Bill Johnson no longer wants to go through treatment after dealing with a life-threatening infection that has attacked his major organs.

Hospitalized since June 29, the one-time daredevil skier refuses a feeding tube, even though it hurts to swallow, his mom said in a phone interview Wednesday. He no longer wants supplemental oxygen or even antibiotics that could possibly help him.

He’s tired of being poked with needles, sick of all the tubes attached to him. His mom said that Johnson’s wish is simply to leave the hospital and return to his room at an assisted living facility in Gresham, Ore., where the 53-year-old was living before the illness.

That way, he can fight this on his terms and in his own way.

“He could receive some help with a feeding tube and so on, but he doesn’t want it anymore,” his mother, D.B. Johnson-Cooper, said. “I understand. He can’t do anything. He cannot move his body in any way or use his body in any way. He can hardly talk. It’s very sad. Very, very sad.”

Johnson’s health has steadily declined in recent years because of mini strokes. Three years ago, he had a major stroke that began to steal the use everything but his left hand — his steering hand, the one he used to power his motorized chair down the hallways at the care facility.

Now, hardly able to move at all, he “just wants to go to sleep,” his mom said.

Still, there are good days.

Like on Tuesday, when his mom took him out into the hospital’s garden and they watched a storm building off in the distance, the color returning to her son’s cheeks for the first time in a while.

“I was so happy,” she said. “After that, I think he could be just fine. It was a wonderful day.”

His mom said the infection is in his blood stream and doctors can’t find the source. An X-ray was recently taken of his heart and there was nothing attached to the valves.

“His vital signs are fine,” she said. “His mind is still fine. But the infection is still there. They feel he can go home.”

The other day, Johnson had his mom reach out to his friends through the computer, just to let them know his condition.

“He’s had a lot of response,” she said. “So that’s a good thing. He’s a tough one.”

There was a time when Johnson lived life on the edge, with a swagger and a rebellious attitude that instantly made him a favorite among fans. He had movie-star looks and a personality to match. He also had the talent to back it up, becoming the first American to capture the downhill crown at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.

In 2001, Johnson attempted to recapture his glory days and made a comeback at the U.S. championships at age 40, hoping to earn a spot on the squad for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. But Johnson wiped out during a practice run, suffering a traumatic brain injury that erased nearly a decade of memories. It also forced him to relearn how to walk, talk and eat again.

He made steady improvement, even returning to the slopes for fun. Then, in June 2010, Johnson had a stroke and little by little lost the use of his body. His mom said he now has to be helped up in his bed to eat.

“There’s no quality of life whatsoever,” said his mom, who’s been taking care of him since his accident. “We’ve talked about this. I don’t try to dwell on this subject. I know what he wants. I understand. It’s OK. I don’t have a problem with it.”

Two months before his recent infection, his sons stopped by for a visit, taking him out for a day on the town in his customized van.

“The boys had a wonderful time with him,” his mom said. “They have good memories.

“I have a lot of fond memories. We’ve had lots and lots of fun together.”

She paused.

“He’s a fighter,” she said. “He’s always been so strong and all I can say is I expect he’s going to get stronger. As long as he keeps eating, he’s going to be fine.”

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