Closer To The Heart

Nov. 30, 2007

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - - D.J. Johnson finished his first semester of fall tennis with a 5-6 win-loss record. It was a respectable freshman debut, which included a 'D' flight title at the Purdue Invitational and a pair of victories at the Big Ten Singles Tournament.

But it takes more than talent to win a tennis match. It also takes heart. And while Johnson competed on the court this fall, his heartstrings were regularly tugged on over a 2,000 mile distance by friends and family.

Johnson was born in Flint, Mich., - his parents both Wolverines - but now calls Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., his home.

Rancho Santa Fe is one of the nation's most affluent neighborhoods, which lists professional golfer Phil Mickelson, San Diego Padres owner John Moores, and members of pop-punk outfit Blink 182 as its residents.

As part of San Diego County in Southern California, Rancho Santa Fe also is home to thick wooded areas, hot weather and Santa Ana Winds; three factors that contributed to the extreme October wildfires that destroyed upwards of 500,000 acres and 1,500 homes from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.

The Johnson home is still standing, but some of their friends were not as fortunate. Johnson was told the flames came as close as a mile to his neighborhood and is aware the fires will likely rise again.

"The same thing happened in 2003 but we didn't have evacuate," said Johnson. "It was almost just as bad, but this time with the fires going all the way to the coast, it's a little frightening knowing it could happen in the future."

Johnson's family - mom, dad and four younger siblings - received the evacuation notice via the internet, but were already settled 460 miles away near Stanford University.

Johnson heard about the evacuation from family friends, making the overall situation quite a rattling experience.

His heart raced as he tried to figure out what all was going on back home.



"I had to hear from other people, rather than my parents, about all that was going on and It was hard to get the full, correct story," said Johnson. "The fires were headed straight for my town so the local firemen were coming around telling everyone to leave."

Despite the series of unfortunate events, the house, the fires, and the evacuation were not among the Johnson's top priorities that day - and rightfully so.

Houses can be rebuilt.

Fires can be extinguished.

And most evacuations are temporary.

But the bond that kept the Johnson family together remained stable in the face of adversity.

The heartstrings were at work.

And it's because of this positive reliance on one another that the Johnson's decided to congregate at Stanford rather than heading back to an empty street in their neighborhood.

Johnson's youngest sister, Olivia, was already at a Stanford hospital with their mom, Julia, when the wildfires began to spread. They were joined there a few days later by father, Donald, and brother, Campbell, who were both returning early from a tennis tournament in Canada.

Campbell, 15-years-old, was originally diagnosed with a broken knee and he was sent back to the states wearing a full leg cast. An MRI provided by the hospital would reveal the injury as a torn ACL.

Olivia, only 11, also was undergoing medical procedures, but for something a bit more serious - Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Hodgkin's lymphoma (or Hodgkin's disease) is characterized by the orderly spread of disease from one lymph node group to another. Lymph nodes, which are found throughout the body, are filters or traps for foreign particles and contain white blood cells.

Luckily for Olivia and her family, the cure rate is above 90 percent, making it one of the most curable forms of cancer. Former National Hockey League star Mario Lemieux and current Pennsylvania state senator Arlen Specter are two of the disease's more notable survivors.

Olivia's cancer has been in remission for more than a year but she still makes trips to Stanford every three months to receive treatments. So the fact that she went up there right as the wildfires began to spread and her brother tore his ACL playing tennis, gives this improvised family reunion the appearance of a real-life blessing in disguise.

Olivia was first diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease two years ago and it's been a life-changing event for Johnson, who's watched his baby sister battle through chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Prior to Olivia's diagnosis, Johnson and his family were unfamiliar with the effects of Hodgkin's disease. Johnson said there's been no history of this disease within his family and speculated it was all brought on by natural causes.

Thanks to the power of the internet and the wealth of information it can bring to individuals, no matter how far apart they may be, Johnson learns more and more each day about what Olivia is battling. One of his daily highlights is receiving inspirational and informative YouTube videos sent by his mom, which help him better understand the challenges his sister was and is facing.

"I call my family almost everyday and get the updates on everyone," said Johnson. "It's good that I have to keep in touch with them. We've grown so close in the past few years. I email with my parents all the time, and my mom always finds time to send me the YouTube videos."

Because of Olivia's battles with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, Johnson is more than eager to promote any cancer awareness fundraisers through the Boilermaker tennis program. The swimming and diving team recently sponsored a Penny War between competing schools at a weekend-long invitational, and soccer held a Soccer Mom camp with most proceeds going towards breast cancer research.

Johnson's ideas range from having his Boilermaker teammates wearing pink shirts to raising money for every ace served by a member of the Purdue tennis programs this spring.

Once again, the heartstrings are at work.

"My sister's cancer has influenced my decision in getting Purdue involved," said Johnson. "I would like to do something similar to what some of the other sports have done because my family has been personally affected. Wearing a pink jersey would be fine - anything to help the cause."


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