Missionary from Hermantown eager to get back to work after Guatemala shootingHermantown native Doug Johnson, 61, survived a brush with death when he was shot in a failed robbery attempt on Nov. 19 outside one of the mission homes where he serves as construction supervisor.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
As he lay on a Guatemalan hospital bed with four bullet wounds, Hermantown native Doug Johnson heard the doctors whisper, “He’s still here. He’s still here.”
In a telephone interview on Friday, Johnson, 61, related his brush with death when he was shot in a failed robbery attempt on Nov. 19 outside one of the mission homes where he serves as construction supervisor.
“I definitely feel the Lord was protecting me,” Johnson said from his home in Guatemala, where he is continuing to recuperate after being released from the hospital last week. “I think there were several opportunities where I could have been gone.”
Johnson and his wife, Sara, have served as missionaries since 1983 after leaving Duluth and his hometown church, Salem Covenant in West Duluth. The church has supported them financially for 30 years, said Cindee Johnson, Doug Johnson’s sister-in-law. Salem Covenant has maintained particularly close ties through his brothers, Darrell and Duane.
After working on several projects in the U.S., the Johnsons went to San Lucas, Guatemala, 11 years ago under the auspices of Indiana-based Kids Alive International, Doug Johnson said. There, Johnson led the construction of a complex of buildings to house and care for abandoned and abused girls.
“They just started shooting”
On Nov. 19, he drove to a bank to get money to pay a construction crew at one of the ministry’s sites. Johnson isn’t sure, he said, but he thinks the teller may have tipped off buddies outside that a man was leaving with a substantial amount of money.
He drove to the site and walked through a gate to talk to some of the workers. When he came back out, he was confronted by two men who carried guns and demanded money, he said.
Johnson still doesn’t understand what happened next.
“I didn’t have time to give them any money,” he said. “I didn’t have the opportunity. They just started shooting.”
There were five shots, and Johnson was hit at least four times. One bullet passed through his right leg; another through his right arm below the elbow, breaking it in two places; a third bullet passed through his torso from right to left, striking his stomach and liver and puncturing his diaphragm; and a fourth grazed his left arm.
The assailants fled without trying to take Johnson’s money, a fact that still mystifies him. Although Johnson was hurt badly, he didn’t lose consciousness. He remembers a construction worker emerging, calling for help and cradling him while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
The ride to the hospital was harrowing.
“It’s a pretty no-frills ambulance,” Johnson said. “It’s just like a cargo van. I was hanging on for dear life in the back of that thing.”
“It was touch-and-go”
The ambulance took him about eight miles to Hospital Roosevelt in Guatemala City. It’s a public hospital that doesn’t have a good reputation, he said, and Johnson was moved to a private hospital the next day. But initially being taken to Hospital Roosevelt may have been for the best, he said, because “they do probably a dozen gunshots a day at that hospital.”
Johnson recovered slowly, but about four weeks ago suffered a setback when blood clots in his leg traveled to his lungs. “It was touch-and-go there for a while,” he said.
Darrell and Duane flew to Guatemala to be with their brother, and Doug Johnson got through the crisis, finally getting out of the hospital on Jan. 18. He has had ample support from his and Sara’s five children along the way. The youngest, a 13-year-old boy, lives with them in Guatemala. Their daughter is an athletic trainer in New York City. Their other three sons live in Chicago; two are nurses and the third will graduate with a nursing degree in May. All three have been able to spend time with their parents since the shooting. Their son Neal and his wife Kari — both nurses — are with them now.
A spiritual uplift occurred three days after Johnson got out of the hospital, when he was able to pay a visit to the Oasis, where about 50 of the rescued girls are housed.
There were “lots of hugs, lots of encouragement,” Johnson said, his voice breaking. “I’m kind of like the resident grandpa. A lot of the girls have only had bad male figures in their lives. They’re abused. The reason we have them is mostly because of men abusing them. They need grandpas.”
Meanwhile, no one has been arrested in connection with the shooting, Johnson said. In Guatemala, that’s not surprising.
“You can’t trust the police. You can’t trust the army,” he said. “It’s a hard thing.”
At the scene of the shooting, four different police agencies tried to confiscate his truck, Johnson said. They claimed it was evidence, even though it had been locked and wasn’t struck by any bullets. If it had been taken, Johnson said, it would have taken “forever” to get it back, and he’s certain he wouldn’t have gotten his tools back. So the mission’s administrator offered bribes totaling 2,000 quetzals — about $250 U.S. — to keep the truck.
Johnson intends to return to work, he said, but he realizes he will have to be patient. He gets winded easily, and he faces continued physical therapy for his arms and legs. “With my hand, I can’t even turn a doorknob,” he said.
Gordon Sheffer, director of administration and human resources for Kids Alive in Valparaiso, Ind., said Johnson would be given as much time as he needed. “We’re just ecstatic he survived,” Sheffer said.
This was the most serious incident involving Kids Alive personnel in San Lucas, Sheffer said. But he acknowledged that Guatemala can be dangerous.
“It’s all too frequent a type of thing that happens,” Sheffer said. “It’s a country with a history of war. It’s a beautiful, gorgeous country. At the same time, you’ve got these social tensions.”
The violence hasn’t made the Johnsons think they should leave Guatemala, Doug Johnson said. Yes, there are a lot of murders in the country, but there also are a lot of murders in Chicago — where the Johnsons spent seven years building a medical clinic and homeless shelter.
“We feel God directed and led us and brought us to Guatemala,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to sound trite, but I haven’t heard him say to me, ‘I think it’s time for you to go home’ yet.
“So I think we plan to stay here, and I think we can be useful here yet.”