Geonni Johnson may be in a wheelchair after being struck with acute flaccid myelitis, but she’s still a curious 4-year-old. Video by Montgomery Advertiser.
Demond Robinson leans in, his 6-foot-8 frame nestling into a huddle of his three much-younger siblings.
They crowd around a smartphone — what else in this day and age? — to check out another video or another video game, all laughing at what unfolds.
But the youngest of the group is the most special, strapped to a chair with a tube sticking out of her throat.
When Robinson uncoils from the group, he sneaks a peck onto Geonni’s forehead with enough gentleness that shows he’s done it before.
Geonni’s reaction — actually no reaction at all — shows how much she’s come to expect such tenderness.
Demond Robinson may be the biggest star, both literally and figuratively, on Robert E. Lee’s boys basketball team, but the softest spot in his heart is the most obvious.
It starts with Geonni, whose last year has included five months in Children’s Hospital, the start of what will be lengthy physical therapy and ardent support for her “Bro-bro.”
“When it all happened, they said she couldn’t breathe, and I wondered if my mom was saying she had passed away,” Robinson said. “It scared me. I was shocked. I couldn’t say too much.”
Acute flaccid myelitis struck Geonni late last summer, paralyzing the precocious 4-year-old and leaving Robinson, his mom and his siblings in turmoil.
AFM hits the nervous system, specifically the spinal cord, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC estimates as many as 2 million children get it each year.
It’s mysterious enough that there is no set treatment.
“They don’t know what causes it, they don’t know how to treat it, they don’t know how to prevent it,” said Felecia Johnson, mother to the four.
“With all the symptoms she has, they just try to treat those,” she said. “She just tries to get her strength back.”
Geonni initially had a fever. When her temperature increased overnight, Johnson took her to a doctor, who thought it was pneumonia and set her to Baptist East.
A day later, Geonni was even weaker and they returned to the hospital. By midnight that night, they sent her to Birmingham.
Johnson said doctors suspected Guillain-Barre syndrome. After Geonni had an MRI, they settled on AFM.
Geonni weakened further and “was completely paralyzed,” Johnson said, for a week or two.
“Then she started squeezing hands and moving her toes,” Johnson said. “Then the squeezes were tighter.”
Robinson vividly remembers the first time he saw Geonni in the hospital.
She was asleep in the bed, motionless, with a tube sticking out of her mouth. She had been intubated to help her breath.
Robinson is man enough to admit he shed tears at the sight. He fights them back remembering it.
“I gave her a kiss on the forehead and told her she was going to be all right,” Robinson said.
“I told her I loved her.”
Over the next five months, Johnson basically lived in Birmingham, though she came home to Montgomery two or three times a week to check on Robinson and his two younger brothers.
Robinson, Jujuan and Geo made Saturday visits to Birmingham to see Geonni.
They sometimes flouted hospital rules, too. With the doctors and nurses’ blessing, they would “sneak” in to see Geonni during times when minors weren’t allowed. At the same time, Geonni couldn’t exactly go to the lobby to see them, either.
“Mom kept saying she would be home soon,” Robinson said. “I’d ask, ‘How long is soon?’ She’d say, ‘I don’t know’ every time.
“It turned out to be five months.”
Jujuan is now 8 years old and, he says, the unquestioned best basketball player in the family.
Geo is now 4. He and Geonni are twins with Geo the oldest “by about a minute,” Johnson said.
Over those five months, Robinson became more than just their 6-foot-8 older brother who was a living-room wrestling foil and living, breathing jungle gym.
He was responsible for making sure they behaved, making sure they got to school and got home from school.
Robinson turned into basically a dad, while his little sister fought so bravely.
“I really don’t know how it all affected him, but he really stepped up to the plate,” Johnson said. “He did what I needed him to do, and I’m so proud of him.
“He took them where they needed to do. He picked them up. He made sure they were in their right routine.”
While Geonni’s hospital stay continued, Robinson finished his college decision, though Geonni loomed large when he finally signed.