Dakota Johnson wasn't able to walk across the stage at graduation, but that didn't stop the teen, who was suffering from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, from receiving his high school diploma

By Joelle Goldstein
April 29, 2019 07:09 PM
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Just days before a Tennessee teenager died after a long-term battle with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, his dream of graduating high school like the rest of his peers was fulfilled.

Earlier this month, Dakota Johnson was admitted to the hospital for heart failure, WJHL reports. Because of his condition, Johnson was unable to walk across the stage at his high school graduation — something he had set out to accomplish this year.

Instead of missing out on graduation altogether, Johnson’s homeschool teacher Allison Russell had the ceremony come to his hospital room at Johnson City Medical Center last Wednesday, the outlet reports.

Two days after receiving his diploma, Johnson sadly died at age 19, according to WJHL.

For Russell, the moment was particularly bittersweet, as she recognized how important graduating was for her student, who had suffered from the muscular degeneration disorder for quite some time.

“What mattered most to me is that I wanted Dakota to experience that and his grandmother [who raised him] to experience that,” Russell told WJHL. “His grandmother told me that it was probably the happiest day of his life to get that diploma, so I am happy we were able to do that for him.”

teen graduates
Credit: WJHL

Since Johnson was in seventh grade, he had been homeschooled through the Johnson City School District, the outlet reports. As he entered his senior year, Johnson told Russell that his goals were to attend the prom and graduate from Science Hill High School.

On April 19, however, the teenager was admitted to the hospital for heart failure. Despite doing all of his required coursework, his illness prevented him from walking across the stage at graduation like most of his peers and Russell began to realize the severity of her student’s medical situation.

“At that point, I thought, ‘Goodness, you know, I’m not sure what’s going to happen here,'” Russell admitted to WJHL.

Knowing how important graduating was to Johnson, Russell organized for the school ceremony to come to him on April 24.

While sitting in his hospital bed that Wednesday, Johnson’s room was filled with family, friends, medical staff, Science Hill High School’s principal, and even school superintendent, Dr. Steve Barnett, who personally presented Johnson’s diploma to him.

The teen, who was dressed in his graduation cap and gown, then snapped photos with his loved ones as he proudly held his new diploma.

Speaking to WJHL after the ceremony, Johnson’s aunt Susan Breeden expressed her appreciation for the kind gesture and said the ceremony meant a lot to his family.

“Thank you for honoring him, the nurses at the hospital, and the school system. We are forever grateful for their kindness,” she said to the news station.

Johnson was only able to achieve one of his senior year goals, however, as on Friday morning at 5:20 a.m., he sadly passed away from his battle with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, WJHL reports.

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On Monday, Dr. Barnett issued a statement to PEOPLE on behalf of the school district, highlighting Johnson’s “persistence and hard work.”

“We were very saddened to learn of the passing of Dakota Johnson. Our heartfelt condolences and deepest sympathies go out to the family during this very difficult time,” he said. “Dakota’s persistence and hard work earned him his diploma and we were honored to bring graduation to him so that his family could enjoy and celebrate a very special moment with a courageous young man.”

Russell also touched on Johnson’s personality and told the news station that it was part of what she would remember and miss most about the teen.

“[He was] a very funny young man, had a wonderful sense of humor… was very caring, very loving, he loved the people around him,” she said. “I’m really proud of him and what he’s accomplished, and I’ll miss him for a lifetime.”