Together, John Jackson Jr. and Torrance Memorial stroke specialists take
it to the end zone.
Written by John Ferrari | Photographed by Michael Neveux
You know where you stand in football. First and 10. Fourth quarter, 17-14,
John (JJ) Jackson Jr.—All-Pac-10 USC receiver and 1989 team MVP,
two-time Academic All-American, wide receiver for the Phoenix Cardinals
and Chicago Bears—always knew where he stood … until the
day he couldn’t. When that day came, Torrance Memorial’s team
players helped him stand back up in the longest, most challenging contest
he’s ever won.
That day was December 4, 2018. John and his wife, Ann, were at the gym.
“We had a routine where we’d go work out in the morning,”
he recalls. “That’s the irony: I was working out to prevent
strokes or anything. All of a sudden I started feeling a little out of
John chalked it up to dehydration. Ann wasn’t so sure and suspected
a stroke. The two took an ambulance to Torrance Memorial’s Melanie
and Richard Lundquist Emergency Department (ED), where Ann’s suspicion
was confirmed: John had suffered a massive stroke to the right side of
In 2018, the hospital was working toward its Comprehensive Stroke Center
certification (which it received in January 2020), and all the pieces
were in place to call in special teams: neurointensivist Brian Sherman,
MD, and stroke specialists at Cedars-Sinai, brought in via the TeleStroke
videoconferencing system, along with Torrance Memorial ED nurses and physicians.
“We’re part of the Cedars-Sinai Health System,” Dr. Sherman
explains. Using TeleStroke, “Cedars-Sinai specialists can cover
multiple hospitals. Having that system in place is the backbone of providing
immediate high-level care like teleneurology. It allows us to start this
whole process off, in conjunction with our emergency room staff. Because
Torrance Memorial is a comprehensive brain center, we do a lot more than
strokes and have a specialized neurointensive care unit. We’re able
to give the highest level of stroke care. When somebody comes in for a
stroke, Cedars-Sinai TeleStroke doctors get involved quickly, because
decisions have to be made on the type of treatment quickly.”
“The technology was amazing,” Ann says of TeleStroke, which
allows doctors in a remote location to have a virtual presence in the
ED. Together, Dr. Sherman and the team at Torrance Memorial's Lundquist
Neurosciences Institute, collaborating with the Cedars-Sinai specialists,
decided the play: John needed a thrombectomy—the insertion of a
catheter to remove a blood clot from his brain.
If Dr. Sherman was the quarterback, Ann was the coach—confirming
the calls. “Every procedure they did, they informed me of the possibilities,”
she remembers. “There was amazing communication. I appreciated that.”
That’s part of Torrance Memorial’s playbook, Dr. Sherman says.
“The most important thing is the family and the physician and the
medical team are all a part of the team together and we’re doing
this together. I am there to provide guidance on the best options and
recommendations, but only the family knows their loved one best.”
The procedure was successful, but they hadn’t scored a touchdown.
John’s brain was swelling, the same way your finger swells after
you accidentally hit it with a hammer. But with John’s brain surrounded
by his skull, there was no room for his brain to expand, and instead pressure
built up. Hours after the thrombectomy, his condition began to worsen rapidly.
“I was the attending physician,” Dr. Sherman explains. “As
the primary critical care intensivist, your responsibility is to be able
to assist your colleagues who initially diagnosed and removed the clot,
but also to get a sense and a feel for the patient—understanding
their ups and downs as they are in the ICU. As the primary physician in
the ICU, you have to have the pulse of the situation—literally.
With him it was about anticipation and being proactive.”
As soon as Dr. Sherman noticed John becoming sleepy—common enough
in postoperative patients—he worried about swelling. A CAT scan
revealed a “curtain of swelling” moving across John’s
brain. Without surgical intervention, John had only hours to live.
“Now the only option is to remove half of his skull,” Dr. Sherman
continues. “That gives you room to allow the brain to swell. You
have to coordinate a massive team: get the OR ready and, meanwhile in
the ICU, get specialized medication that reduces the swelling and buys
you enough time to get the OR ready.”
At this point, neurosurgeon Bob Shafa, MD, took the ball, performing the
surgery. At Torrance Memorial, he says, “Our model is to be extremely
aggressive with treatment—especially in cases of young patients,”
such as John. Thanks to the initial treatment, and the quick diagnosis
of swelling, “We had that initial window of timing, and when he
started to deteriorate, time was of the essence for us.”
Like Dr. Sherman, Dr. Shafa brought the family into the huddle. “We
try to connect with them and try to help them in making these very difficult
decisions,” he says. “My philosophy is to treat them as your
own family, and then you know in your heart the right decision.”
John was in a coma for two weeks after the emergency surgery, with a section
of his skull tucked neatly into his abdomen to keep it alive until it
was safe to replace it. “Then there’s always that one day
when all of a sudden you see a flicker of hope,” Dr. Sherman says.
“You see a flicker of an eye.”
John came out of his coma, but he wasn’t in the fourth quarter yet.
He had months and years of recovery ahead of him.
“I can remember the recovery stage,” John recalls. “Dr.
Shafa would come by the room and ask how I was doing. I couldn’t
wait to say hello. Seeing the doctor that saved your life, that’s
Once out of immediate danger, John moved from Torrance Memorial’s
neurological intensive care unit to transitional care, and there was rehab,
Ann recalls, “before, during and after. When he first started, he
couldn’t even hold his head up.”
Every day, John had occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy.
“It’s like being a baby,” John explains. And it’s
tough. “You have to make it through those tough times because they
definitely will come. Nothing can prepare you, and it’s not easy.”
But John’s a team player, and in addition to his family he had a
team of supporting players in transitional care. “All of the people
you’re dealing with are great. You start to develop relationships
like they’re your brother or sister.” He spent three months
in bed, but by the time he left in mid-April (with his skull back in place),
he was using a walker.
Dr. Sherman did a lot to get John—and his family—to that point.
And it’s about more than just medicine, he explains. “I want
them to feel in control every day. That’s a service we can offer
at Torrance Memorial: We invest and spend time with patients and their
families. That’s what’s required—it’s where the
truth of the oath that you’ve taken as a physician lives. You’ve
got to be side-by-side with the family. There’s a lot of coaching
that goes along with this. John’s an athlete, so he knows what it’s
like to have a coach. Even the best have to have a coach.”
After he left Torrance Memorial in April, John spent almost a month at
a local transitional rehab center, “and the focus every day, all
day, was rehab,” Ann says. Once he was back at home, he returned
to Torrance Memorial three times a week for physical, occupational and
In the year since then, that’s been reduced to less than once a week.
“Even when I go to the hospital now, it’s like seeing your
sister you haven’t seen in a long time,” he says. “It’s
still a great feeling for me to go back to the hospital. That’s
one of the highlights since I’ve been out: keeping an eye out for
people who cared for me.”
There was still something puzzling John, Ann and the team at Torrance Memorial,
though. Why did a relatively young, athletic man like John have a stroke
at all? Cardiologists at the Torrance Memorial Lundquist Lurie Cardiovascular
Institute “discovered a hole in my heart that could allow a blood
clot to pass through and get to my brain,” John explains.
While his medical team is monitoring that condition, John continues to
recover from his stroke. Like any lifelong athlete, he has set himself
some powerful goals with his family and his alma mater. A second-generation
Trojan (his father, John Sr., was a USC football running back coach and
offensive coordinator), until his stroke John was a football commentator
on the USC Trojans Radio Network.
In 2019 his son, John Jackson III, was starting his freshman year as a
wide receiver at USC. “That was my long-term goal while I was in
the hospital,” John says. “To watch him come out of the tunnel
at USC at a game.” On August 31, 2019, as the Trojans took the field
at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for their first game of the season, John
was back in the broadcast booth. “To be able to watch my son do
that was a dream come true.”
Now John is looking ahead to his next goals. “My daughter is a very
good soccer player, going into her senior year of high school, and has
committed to USC,” he says. “My goal now is to be able to
watch her play soccer in a USC uniform and be able to talk about her in
my broadcast. And USC has been wanting me to get back. I couldn’t
have had a better combination than Torrance Memorial and USC, and my 9-to-5
job at First American Title Insurance Company, looking out for me and
wanting to take care of my health. I have a hospital and two jobs that
have been caring and looking out for my best interests. My anticipation
is to go back to broadcasting in the fall, and USC has been supportive
of that. I think I’m on track; I just have to keep on getting stronger.”
He continues, “Through all of this, the Torrance Memorial doctors
went above and beyond the call of duty in doing their job. In developing
relationships, they were caring and thoughtful. It’s almost like
they knew what you were going through, mentally and physically. I couldn’t
have had a better combination of doctors, nurses and therapists to get
me to where I am today. I couldn’t be more thankful.”