Without her spleen, which she lost in a car crash in her 20s, Joan Johnson was defenseless against the blood poisoning that killed her July 4.
She was 62.
Johnson was infected two days earlier when a dog nipped her hand at her beloved San Juan Capistrano dog grooming business, .
"I don't think she realized how vulnerable she was with no spleen, because there's schools of thought that if you have no spleen, you shouldn't be working with animals. But I know my sister; she would have done it anyway," said Kirk Heiden.
He flew in from Fort Lauderdale, FL, on Wednesday to help Johnson's husband, John Howard, keep the shop's doors open for "baths and toenails."
Dog owners in the community may have loved Johnson as much as she loved their pooches, whom she groomed for about two decades at her business on Alipaz Street.
Johnson nicknamed the canines, checked their ears for infections and rarely put them in cages. She fine-tuned her operation so that bookings revolved around the dogs' temperaments. Wednesdays were set aside for older dogs with failing eyesight.
Over the course of 20 years, San Juan Capistrano resident Harriett Perry took her golden retriever, little black poodle and Westie to Johnson, first upon recommendation from a neighbor when she first moved to down.
Johnson "took the time to get acquainted with them. None of the dogs ever resisted. They would go happily and give her a big kiss," Perry said. She was an "icon in the community."
Johnson's death shook her clients, said Heather Valdez, a three-month employee.
"I think it's mainly some of the older ladies that come over from the trailer park next door and bring their dogs—they're coming in here and falling apart, because they're used to that once-a-week conversation with Joan," Valdez said. "They think their dogs just won't go anywhere else. They just miss her."
Johnson, born June 3, 1949, in Emporia, IL, groomed her first dog—a cocker spaniel—at age 5. "Joan was the kind who would find a frozen squirrel in winter and give it a proper burial," Heiden said.
But as she grew up, she appeared destined to become an artist.
According to Heiden, "she never expressed a desire to be a vet or a groomer or anything like that."
Later in life, that creativity morphed into jewelry-making. She crafted dream catchers, inspired by her love for the Southwest. It was her and her husband's dream to eventually relocate to the high desert of Arizona.
"I don't know when the lightbulb went off; I don't know how she started" Ali Paws, Heiden said.
In fact, she never wanted to have a grooming business. It just sort of happened, John Howard said.
It was because of Ali Paws that he met Johnson. He worked next door in the Peach Tree Plaza at a printing shop.
They were married 13 years.
Howard and Heiden agree that managing a business wasn't Johnson's forte. They say she often overpaid her employees and let clients skip payments.
"But here we are today. This was her life. The people were more than her clients; they were her friends," Howard said.