If you’ve never been a believer in the innocence of children, this story will change your mind. Isabella Conn was just four years old when the car her father was driving was struck sideways by a two-tonne utility truck. The driver of the vehicle escaped with minor cuts and bruises, as did Peter Conn, Isabella’s father; Isabella was not so lucky.
Despite being fully strapped in, Isabella was thrown around the car with such ferocity that she broke 24 bones, including her back. Although she recovered from most of her injuries, the catastrophic damage done to her spinal cord meant that this energetic little girl would never walk again.
In the years since the accident, Isabella, now seven, has fought bravely to recover a surprising amount of mobility. Although she’ll likely remain confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, this plucky youngster has no intention of sitting on her laurels. It was always Isabella’s ambition to one day become a ballerina, and despite losing the use of her legs, she continues to chase this dream having recently taken up wheelchair ballet.
Isabella’s positivity is an example to all of us, and this became even more apparent when a judge awarded her and her family over $5million in compensation as a result of their accident. After a thorough investigation, it transpired that the driver of the utility vehicle, Gary Johnson, was under the influence of pain medication when the crash occurred.
Crucially, the drug’s labelling contained no indication that drowsiness – the cause of the crash – was a known side effect. The pharmaceutical company behind the medication were assigned culpability for the accident and Isabella’s injuries, with their subsequent payout a reflection of the injuries sustained and her incredibly young age.
But Isabella wasn’t the only victim in this situation. For years after the crash, Mr Johnson blamed himself for falling asleep at the wheel. It was only when a separate investigation into the drug revealed its hidden effects that Gary realised he wasn’t at fault. Sadly, this revelation came two years after the accident, by which time Mr Johnson had lost his job, his wife and several close friends.
The amazing thing is that even before this news broke, young Isabella refused to blame Mr Johnson for her injuries. When she was cruelly asked about this by bloodthirsty reporters seeking a story, Isabella replied that “We all get tired sometimes. Maybe he was just working too hard.”
Isabella later found out that it was Mr Johnson’s lawsuit which had resulted in her being awarded compensation, and that he had requested that all proceeds be assigned to her. She demanded the chance to meet him, and he reluctantly agreed. The two met in private at the Conn family home, and both told of their struggles with ordinary life since the accident. Despite her young age, Isabella was incredibly empathetic, and she couldn’t fathom how a nice man like him could lose everything over an accident that wasn’t his fault.
When Mr Johnson told of how he hadn’t worked since, Isabella repeatedly asked him what she could do to help; but still, Gary refused all offers of assistance. He wouldn’t take a penny from the young girl and insisted that he would find his own solution to a problem he still felt responsible , and it was when he did so that Isabella had an idea.
“Issy noticed Mr Johnson walking down the road”, Peter said, “and she asked me why he was walking when it was raining. So I told her it was probably because he didn’t have a car anymore. So she said, let’s buy him one, as a Christmas present. Nobody can refuse a present.”
Peter and his wife were unsure about this, since Gary seemed insistent, almost aggressively so, on working out his troubles in his own way. But Isabella refused to relent, as always, and she eventually got her own way. One week later, just ten days before Christmas, Isabella helped her parents pick out a new vehicle to give to Mr Johnson. Issy couldn’t wait until Christmas though, so they presented it to him that very same day.
Gary was overcome with emotion. He couldn’t hold back the tears, and nor could he refuse to honour the kindness being shown towards him. Peter Conn recalls how Mr Johnson insisted he would pay Isabella back because he wanted her to enjoy every last cent of her compensation. Isabella said she he should keep his money, but if he wanted to, he could buy her a small present in return.
On Christmas Eve, Gary Johnson did exactly that. With a new set of wheels under him, Gary was able to acquire a new job just one week later. He bought Isabella a ballerina outfit, but felt he was now in a position which meant he could do much more for this inspiring little girl.
With a job and a car Gary decided to splurge – and is he ever glad that he did.
With his winnings, Mr Johnson not only gave Isabella a new ballerina outfit, he also paid for her to have lessons with professionals from the Australian ballet company. Isabella was delighted, and she’ll be even happier when she turns sixteen and discovers her second present, as her father Peter explains.
“Gary was aching to return the money we paid for his car. It was a matter of pride for him, and because of his new job, he could do exactly that. I was reluctant to take it of course, but when he told me what he’d done with it, I couldn’t say no.”
Mr Johnson had returned Isabella’s money by reserving a specially adapted car designed for those who cannot use their legs. Isabella will receive the company’s latest disability-friendly model whenever she decides to take up driving. And when such a time arrives, Mr Johnson hopes he can use the occasion to get back in touch with Issy to see how she’s doing.
“If she has time for me, of course. She’ll probably be a famous ballerina by then.”