Red X iconGreen tick iconYellow tick icon
Johnny Lisle physiotherapy student

Physiotherapy student Johnny Lisle has overcome an extremely challenging situation to get where he is today.

A serious head injury from a car accident in 2011 left Johnny Lisle (Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, Ngāpuhi) unable to read.

But that, and two years of intensive recovery, did not stop him from pursuing his University dreams and gaining entrance to the highly competitive programmes of medicine, dentistry and more recently, physiotherapy.

Johnny – now in his final year of a physiotherapy degree – was working as an industrial electrician in 2011 when he realised he wanted to change his career so he could better serve his community. And seeing a friend from high school study medicine made Johnny realise that attending university wasn’t just “for geniuses”.

“I wanted to work with people instead of machines,” he says.

So he signed up at Otago and started his first semester of Foundation Studies in June in the health sciences stream. But just six months later, aged 25, he was in a serious car accident.

“I had a broken neck and a fractured skull.”

The first two years following a head injury are the most important in terms of recovery, Johnny says.

“I had to learn to read again, I didn’t know how to read. I knew my ABCs and the sound of them.”

He struggled, however, with digraphs – the sound that two letters make when put together, such as ‘th’ and ‘br’.

“I couldn’t recognise any words, I had to re-train my brain to recognise words. I’d forgotten all my nouns.”

Johnny’s brother visited him while he was in an Auckland rehabilitation centre for people with head injuries. His brother held up a banana and asked, ‘what’s this?’.

“I could explain that it grows in hot places, and monkeys eat it, I just couldn’t think of the word ‘banana’.”

A physical fitness programme also played a large role in his recovery.

A year and a half later, Johnny opted to repeat semester 1 of Foundation Studies to build up his confidence when it came to using all of the words he had forgotten.

“I ended up doing really well because I tried my hardest.”

The second semester was all new to him, but again, he did well. He took on Health Science First Year (HSFY) in 2014 and gained entrance to the highly competitive medicine, dentistry and physiotherapy programmes.

By this point however, he decided he would like to earn a little bit of money to help get him through his next few years of study, so deferred dentistry for a year for work.

Life had other plans though, and part way through 2016, his first child was born.

Johnny was no longer able to apply to dentistry based on his grades from HSFY, meaning he had to finish another degree before he could apply again.

So in 2017, along with juggling his commitments at home, and as a volunteer with the Waitati Volunteer Fire Brigade, he started a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Human Nutrition.

As if that wasn’t enough, Johnny was also katiaki pūtea (treasurer) for the Māori science students’ group in 2018, Te Rōpū Māori in 2019 and the Waitati toy library in 2019. He had experience volunteering as a surf life saver at St Clair in 2013 and 2014 and had another go at it in Warrington from 2020 until 2022.

Despite his busy study and home life, he not only graduated with his degree, but with high enough grades to be accepted into medical school.

After one semester at medical school, though, Johnny knew it wasn’t for him. He needed time for his son.

“I’ve been in good paying jobs, and it doesn’t matter to me how much the pay is, when you’re not happy, it’s just not worth it.”

So he bided his time, and in 2022 Johnny was accepted into physiotherapy, and will graduate at the end of this year.

“I get to be hands on, and I get to have some flexibility for my family which you don’t always have in every career.”

Johnny was and is still reliant on technology – specifically the reader function on his computer - to help with what he describes as his “hidden disability” from the car crash.

“Otherwise I get exhausted very quickly with my reading and it slows right down and I'll fall asleep after not too long. But with the reader on the computer I can keep a consistent pace and I listen to what it says and also scan with my eyes to get used to the pattern recognition of the words.

“This has helped me keep up with university and has also improved my ability over time with my reading speed. I still notice improvements each year but I can't do without the technology to read to me.

“It's a hidden disability and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has to deal with it,” he says.

Johnny is still involved with the fire service, has since taken up a volunteer role as a rugby team medic for Harbour Rugby Team, and is involved with Kā Rikarika o Tāne, the University’s mentoring programme for Māori students.

“This year I have been awarded Ahi Kā position with Kā Rikarika o Tāne after three years of taking part in the programme helping new Māori students.”

He discovered his Māori ancestry later in life, and so now is also learning Te Reo so he can in turn teach his children.

Johnny acknowledges getting to where he is now has not been a “straight line journey”.

A notebook from high school contains a list of careers he was interested in pursuing, including teaching and physiotherapy.

“It’s funny how you go back to what you knew when you were little.”

~ Kōrero by Internal Communications Advisor, Koren Allpress

Back to top