High school student fulfills dream of graduating just 2 days before his death

Dakota Johnson died two days later of complications from Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

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/ Source: TODAY
By Scott Stump

Dakota Johnson had a simple wish as his health began to deteriorate from the genetic disorder that had prevented him from attending high school with his peers.

The Tennessee teen, who was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, just wanted to attend his graduation from Science Hill High School in Johnson City after realizing his other goal of going to the prom was not going to be feasible.

Tennessee student Dakota Johnson, 19, received his high school diploma in a special ceremony at the hospital two days before his death. Susan Reed Breeden

After a bout of pneumonia last month pushed him toward heart and respiratory failure, his friends, family and teachers decided to bring the ceremony to him instead.

A proud Johnson donned his cap and gown and received his diploma on April 24 while attached to a ventilator in his hospital room at Johnson City Medical Center.

He died two days later at 19 years old.

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"It really took everything he had to get through the ceremony, but I don't know if I've ever seen him that proud,'' Johnson's aunt, Susan Breeden, 45, told TODAY. "He just shook his head and was smiling real big. I don't think there was a dry eye in the room."

Johnson had struggled for years with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disorder characterized by progressive muscle degeneration and weakness, according to the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Boys with DMD often only live to reach their teens, although more are experiencing longer lives, according to the MDA.

When he was seven years old, Johnson began falling frequently and his muscles began to deteriorate, Breeden said.

Johnson, who was raised by his grandmother, Wilma Reed, had frequently been confined to bed in recent years but often played video games with friends on Xbox Live.

Johnson, who had to be homeschooled due to his genetic condition, was congratulated by school officials including the principal and superintendent. Susan Reed Breeden

"It was a struggle, but he had teenage friends and friends from church group who would hang out and play games,'' Breeden said. "He had a real funny personality and just liked to do normal teenage things."

Johnson thankfully did get to experience the prom setting earlier this year at the "Night to Shine" event at a local church in February. The prom for special needs students is sponsored by the Tim Tebow Foundation and takes place at hundreds of churches across the country every year.

The urgency to hold Johnson's graduation ceremony at the hospital grew after he was rushed to the emergency room on April 19 with heart failure, according to Breeden.

Alison Russell, his teacher since seventh grade, spearheaded the effort to put the special moment together only a few days later.

"It just really meant a lot to us that they would do this," Breeden said. "Those nurses are rock stars, plus the school staff.

"I feel like everybody went above and beyond, and it was just really incredible for him to have that moment before he passed to see that his hard work paid off and that people cared."