For all of the craziness the advancement of social media seems to be responsible for, it's nice to be reminded that it can be a tremendous force for so much that is good and loving in the world. For 19-year-old Danielle Gray, a combination of her best friend's love, persistence and social media savvy turned heartbreak into a highlight.
Everything seemed relatively rosy for Gray, who goes by Dani, in mid-June. Though diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was only three months old, the Aledo High School graduate had felt fine as she looked forward to finally seeing her favorite singer Cody Johnson in concert for the first time. Johnson's sold-out Saturday night show at Panther Island Pavilion in Fort Worth was her latest attempt to catch the singing cowboy. And it wasn't just a simple coincidence, she thought, that just a few weeks ago at the same venue, she and a group of her friends and family participated in the Great Strides walk, a cystic fibrosis fundraiser.
But on Monday, June 19, Gray's lungs weren't functioning at a high enough level and she was told that she would need to be admitted into Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth the next day for two weeks, thwarting her best chance so far to see "CoJo" in concert. Missing event due to not feeling well or from being in the hospital wasn't anything new for Gray, but knowing that less than two miles away from her downtown hospital room, several thousands of others would see the show she had so eagerly waited for was a shattering thought.
According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, 30,000 Americans have the "progressive, genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the availability to breathe over time." For the CF patients who live into adulthood, the average life-expectancy is only 37 years old.
For such a debilitating, life-threatening illness, general understanding as to what CF is and how it affects those who have it is still lacking, according to Gray's mother Coleen Gray-Turner. The younger Gray says that throughout school, fellow students and even some teachers would question whether she was genuinely sick simply because her ailments weren't always obvious. Some thought she was lucky to miss class as much as she did, but she knew her scenario was anything but lucky.
Later on that Monday night, Gray's best friend, Victoria O'Brien, decided this time wouldn't be like all the other times her friend had to miss out on the fun. She went into action, emailing to Johnson's management and then getting the word out on Facebook and Twitter. Less than 48 hours later, members of Johnson's management team had received the message and began working on a plan to surprise Gray and keep her from being excluded.
A native of Sebastopol, a tiny town in East Texas not too far from College Station, Johnson has emerged as arguably the biggest Texas country star touring the states today. His last two albums have landed high on the Billboard Country Albums sales charts, with 2016's highly-enjoyable Gotta Be Me debuting at No. 2, just barely behind superstar Blake Shelton's last record. Now playing to several thousand at every show in Texas, and performing in every corner of the United States, Johnson's management team receives a great many requests, ranging from charity-related donations to fans wanting to propose marriage on stage during a show.
It's not uncommon for Johnson, a 30-year-old married father, to send along a signed T-shirt to a sick fan, or to record a personalized get-well video message. Given his busy touring schedule, coupled with the high volume of requests he receives, the chance to actually pay a visit to an ailing fan isn't common for the former bull rider. But in this case the western stars seemed to be well-aligned.
Johnson was touched by Gray's story, and with his show taking place so close to the hospital, a Saturday afternoon pop-in was a no-brainer. With the help of O'Brien and Gray-Turner, not only would Dani get to meet her country idol, but it would be a complete surprise.
Armed with his acoustic guitar and wearing his signature Resistol cowboy hat, Johnson cracked open the hospital room door, peeked his head in and said hello to one of his biggest fans. Coincidently, Gray had just pushed play on her favorite song, Johnson's recent No. 1 hit "With You I Am," as the man himself entered resulting in a fortuitous bit of drama.
As she pressed her hands to her face in speechless shock, tears flowed inside the room and from the nurse station in the hallway. Gray told Johnson about the other times she had tried to see him in concert but failed, including the time a couple of years ago, when before Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth converted to a non-smoking venue, she had to skip a show because her lungs wouldn't have been able to handle the smoky air of the legendary honky-tonk.
She also told him about how she begged the physicians at Cook Children's to let her admit herself after Saturday's show. Hearing Gray's stories of how she didn't mind risking her health for his concerts, Johnson joked about being a "bad influence," and that he was flattered, but felt a little guilty about it too. We had our cameras there in the room, and though the singer was understandably apprehensive about us getting in the way during his chat with Gray, it seemed as though the sheer joy Gray radiated helped ease any awkwardness us media types can often cause.
When greeting us before the surprise, Johnson made it known that it was important to him that Gray be the focus of the afternoon and not himself.
Grabbing his guitar case, Johnson sat down on the room's small couch and fittingly began to perform the song that was playing on the speaker earlier. He even apologized for not being able to bring the whole band to give the high-powered live production he's become famous for. A few selfies were taken, some hugs were shared and plenty of stories were told over the hour-long visit with Gray and her devoted crew.
After Johnson left, Gray was still in a state of shock, and while she had been bothered by having to miss Saturday night's concert, she feels lucky and blessed to be living and to be surrounded by so much love. Her positive outlook has been forged over many years of seeing others with CF lose their battles, a painful process resulting in her knowing what it takes to keep surging ahead.
"You have to just keep going and hopefully be an example to younger kids with CF that there's hope," she says. "Because the more negative you get, the weaker you get, and that's not who I am."