Perhaps you’ve seen Micheala Johanson tooling around Akron and Cleveland in her power wheelchair. Camera on board, she rides the Metro RTA bus, gets lifts from pals, or drives her chair as far as she can — praying that her battery won’t run out of juice before she makes it home to Barberton.
A little more than a decade ago, Johanson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It didn’t surprise her. She knew that something was wrong. She was falling and exhausted, sometimes having to pull her car over to nap, even on a short ride.
The thing about Johanson is that she’s remarkably versatile, having reinvented herself many times and in many places in her 65 years on Earth. She’s lived in Minnesota, California, Missouri, Montana, Iowa and Ohio. And she’s worked as a psychiatric nurse, journalist, traveling writer, chef and truck driver.
For 15 years Johanson jockeyed an 18-wheeler to just about every state in the union. Whenever possible, she bypassed truck stops in favor of off-the-beaten path stopovers so she could pick up local lore.
“I’ve had Christmas dinner with movie stars and sat on a beach in Mississippi with a toothless woman who taught me how to talk to sea gulls,” Johanson said during a Beacon Journal interview in 1999.
She’s also quite the storyteller. So impressed was the reporter who wrote that previous story about Johanson that she described the 6-foot-tall redhead this way: “Johanson is a storyteller by vocation. She can hook you on a tale like a trout on a fly line. Johanson reeled me in recently while we talked … And then with a wink released me from the hook.”
She owned a small cafe, but had to close it as her disease progressed.
While having had many occupations, the thing that has held her interest, aside from writing, is photography. So Johanson reached for her camera.
She quit driving about a year after being diagnosed, so getting around was a challenge.
“When a friend went somewhere, I was like a puppy dog and jumped inside the car, just so I could go” and photograph things, she said.
Inside Johanson’s apartment are pictures she’s taken with her Canon 60D camera of downtown Cleveland, parks, cars, trains, historical sites and landscapes.
“She has a lot of courage. I’ve got trouble with my spine and it’s hard for me to walk right now. For her to get out there like that is really unbelievable,” said neighbor Esther Curtis. “A lot of people don’t have the get-up-and-go with age and illness. I think she is awesome.”
She has become so good at photography that the Jack Richard Studio in Cuyahoga Falls hosted a show in October featuring only Johanson’s work.
“Her work is astronomical. It’s way above what I’ve seen,” said Marilyn Bradach, who works at the studio. “I can’t imagine how she does it when she’s in a wheelchair most of the time.”
The co-facilitator for an MS support group, Johanson hopes her story will encourage others with disabilities, particularly MS, to follow their dreams.
“They can pick up a pen or pencil. They can pick up knitting. They can pick up scrapbooking. They can do things they loved before MS kind of took their lives away,” she said.
“I’ve got a disease that there is no cure. I’ve seen how MS has devastated people’s lives, but it doesn’t have to.”
Johanson said most folks with MS suffer from depression.
“Giving people hope is bigger than any picture on the wall,” she explained. “There’s nothing easy about what I do. I have to hitch rides and take my power chair with me.”
When a car isn’t available, she simply counts on her wheelchair to take her to places that just beg to be photographed.
“I’ve gone about 14 miles in my chair, but I’ve come home on a wing and a prayer with almost no battery left,” she said, laughing. “And I’ve been in pouring rainstorms and froze my tail off trying to get the right picture in Akron.
“I don’t know how many more years of life I’ve got. Sometimes I think I’ve lived 90 percent of my life already, as crazy as it has been,” she added. “You can’t turn the hands of fate. But I’m going out fighting with a camera in my hand.”
Kim Hone-McMahan can be reached at 330-996-3742 or firstname.lastname@example.org.