NEWS | May 9, 2022

Permanent neurological condition won’t stop this Soldier from competing

By MaryTherese Griffin Army

To say U.S. Army Cpl. Tiffanie Johnson loves being in the Army would be an understatement. “There’s nothing like being in the Army- nothing at all,” she says with pride.

She knew she wanted a twenty-year career in the Army and is now 4 years into it, but she may have to retire. Last August, Johnson, who is a food inspector for the Army, was on a long flight to South Korea and had back pain.

“I couldn’t get comfortable on the flight,” she admitted. ”When I landed, I had a tingling sensation in my feet, but I didn’t think much of it.” After a few days, her lower back pain got worse. She knew something was not right.

“What was even scarier is that I was starting to lose strength from my waist down. It was hard to pick up my legs in the morning. In South Korea we had tubs and I was having to use my hands to lift my legs to get in,” Johnson explained.

There wasn’t a neurologist on Camp Humphreys, so she had to see a Korean Doctor off post and have x-rays and tests. They didn’t reveal anything. She continued having difficulty using her legs. Two weeks later, she was seen at the Korean hospital and was told she might need surgery because something was wrong with her spine.

By September 2, she was struggling to walk and saw another neurologist who ordered a battery of different tests, including a spinal tap. Her spinal fluid was good. Johnson was perplexed and so were the doctors because she was not improving. “By the 3rd MRI, they said they adjusted their imaging to go a little bit deeper than normal and found I had inflammation around my spinal cord,” said Johnson. “I wasn’t sure what all that meant other than physical therapy and having to learn how to walk again.“

In Mid-October, the neurologist called Johnson to share the bad news.

“He said I think you have MS (Multiple Sclerosis). Initially I was devastated,” said Johnson. She asked if it was permanent and did she have to keep taking medication for the rest of her life? The answer to both questions was yes. She was not able to get a flight back to the states due to COVID restrictions for a few months. Finally, in February 2022, she arrived at the Walter Reed Soldier Recovery Unit in Bethesda Maryland.

“I learned I have lesions on my brain and inflammation from one end of my spine to the other,” she explained.

MS can rear its ugly head at a moment’s notice and Johnson can have a good day, but then a bad day. It is a full-blown neurological disorder that affects all of her senses. This is where her team in the Army Recovery Care Program have emerged as heroes.

“Getting to the SRU and seeing how close everyone was and how family oriented everyone was made me feel grateful. Our team there from the OTs to the PTs and nurse case mangers, even the commanders and first sergeants, they all make sure I have everything I need.”

The encouragement to compete at Army Trials reassures her that she can overcome what MS puts on her.

“My neurologist tells me all the time you are not your condition. Coming here is where I can apply his words and I can see what I can do,” said Johnson.

She is competing in cycling, field, swimming, rowing, and sitting volleyball.

“Here, I’m really pushing myself and trying new things and the motivation from my peers is awesome!”

Johnson knows that eating right and exercising are important on this journey to living with MS. Her new normal is trying to stay normal and stay working. She does not know if she will be medically retired or not.

“I’m hoping I can return to duty because I feel like there’s a lot more for little ole me in this big Army to do; a lot more to see and a lot more people to connect with for sure. I don’t feel like I’m done yet,” she said.

She wants to be a positive force for others facing an MS diagnosis and competing to be on Team Army is a great example.

“It’s not over yet,” she said with confidence. “:You control your body. MS Doesn’t make or break you. It won’t break me.”