College basketball player, coach – Sidelined with transplant

Melissa Johnson, a 2003 graduate of Earlham College spent three years coaching the Quakers, and led them to a 12-13 season in her final year, when she faced uncertain health issues.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

She wears a t-shirt that reads: “Wonder Woman in Training.” By most accounts, the phrase accurately describes Melissa Johnson.

There are various media reports – including ESPN – about her resilience, her motivation, and her leadership – on and off the court. A 1999 graduate of Whiteland Community High School, she received awards as the top athlete and went on to play basketball for three seasons at Earlham College. She served as team captain for three seasons, was a two-time Earlham Defensive Player of the Year, and helped the “Quakers” reach the North Coast Athletic Conference Championship game in 2001.

As a student at Earlham she met Nick Johnson – who played college football and ran track. The two married 14 years ago. They had their first child, Jayden in 2008 and their son, Jacob in 2010.

Life was good. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and graduated from the College’s Master of Arts in Teaching Program.

A year after Jacob was born Melissa became the head coach of the Earlham College women’s basketball program. Her husband served as a coach of track and field and football and later became the head football coach.

An avid runner, Melissa spent time participating in mini-marathons and lifting weights – all part of her lifestyle and commitment to coaching. But in 2014, everything changed. Shortly after going in for a routine hysterectomy, she developed severe pain that was diagnosed with severe acute pancreatitis. It was the beginning of what would become a long road eventually leading to IU Health and multivisceral transplant.

In the course of a year, she was hospitalized for 200 days – including once with life-threatening intestinal blockage. Her slender 5’6” frame dropped to 108 pounds and she relied on a feeding tube for nourishment. At another hospital she underwent surgery to remove her pancreas and transplant cells into her liver to aid her digestive system.

Just months later her pituitary and adrenal glands shut down, she developed a serious infection and was flown by IU Health LifeLine helicopter to Methodist Hospital. She was treated for a swollen brain and a cerebral spinal leak and was in a coma – impacting her ability to talk and walk.

“It was like over night life changed drastically,” said Johnson, the daughter of Sally and Mike Liffick. With her mother at her side, she talked about her life before coming to IU Health.

She resigned as women’s basketball coach after the 2013-14 season, was rehired in March 2017 but eventually stepped down before the start of the 2017-18 season. “It was a sport I loved, a job I loved but I had to focus on my health,” she said. By June of 2017, she had undergone 15 surgeries, had all or part of 13 organs removed and spent more than 600 days in various hospitals.

Last November her husband announced he would step down as Earlham’s head football coach after completing a four-year stint. He continues working at the college in student-athlete development.

“It’s been a rough road for both of us,” said Melissa Johnson. “Nick was in his first home game as head coach when I developed an infection in my blood stream that traveled into my brain, causing massive seizures and strokes.” That was when she was first hospitalized at IU Health.

“I have always held onto hope and I’ve always looked at Wonder Woman as my sort of alter ego,” said Johnson. “She can do anything because she is smart, bold, and brave.”

It’s taken a super hero to keep her focused on the good that is about to come in her life – the change in direction.

“After multiple surgeries to remove my pancreas, part of my stomach, spleen, gall bladder and part of my small intestine, I had to hold onto something that would help me remain positive for my family,” said Johnson. “At another hospital I was in hospice. They told me to get comfortable and live as long as I could. That was probably the hardest stage in all of this.”

Then she began researching options. She wasn’t’ about to give up.

“The last two years has been about surviving. We decided we’re not quitters so we kept researching doctors,” said Johnson, 38. Their research led them to IU Health and Dr. Richard Mangus, known for his work with multivisceral transplantation.

Johnson was approved on September 23 and 36 hours later received the call. Her surgery was scheduled for September 25 – a transplant of stomach, pancreas, liver, small intestine and large intestine.

Days after her transplant her family wrote: “Today was an emotional day for the Transplant Floor at IU Health – in celebrating the highs & lows for multivisceral transplant. On this floor, everyone quickly becomes family, as this is the most difficult and rarest of transplants completed on patients who honestly have no other chance of staying alive. . . . While many surgeons would never even attempt a five-organ transplant on a patient, we have come across a brilliant surgeon at IU who holds onto the hope for a patient until their last breath is taken.”

And still days later as she began to regain strength, Johnson said:

“It’s been a rough start but it’s going to be a rough start no matter what route you go – you make a choice to say ‘I’ll live in fear’ or ‘I’ll take a leap of faith.’ I put my faith in Dr. Mangus. He is fabulous at what he does and I live by hope. If you have hope you have everything.”