Heart recipient, Shirley Johnson, recently joined LifeShare to visit with Northeastern Health System employees about organ donation. LifeShare and Johnson were invited to NHS as part of the hospital’s celebration of National Heart Month. According to LifeShare, more than 118,000 Americans are currently waiting for lifesaving organ transplants; more than 700 of them Oklahomans.
Johnson began what she calls her, “God Support Journey,” with a 3:00 a.m. heart attack on June 20, 2016.
“I was awakened by what felt like an extremely painful cramp between my shoulder blades,” remembered Johnson. “This was the third time in three days I had experienced discomfort between my shoulders. Having done yard work over the weekend, and no longer being a spring chicken, I figured it was just a muscle cramp. Boy was I wrong!”
Johnson’s husband, DJ, drove her to the emergency room where she was quickly transported to St. Francis Heart Hospital and rushed to the catheterization lab. Johnson had what is known as a “Widow Maker,” due to her heart attack’s intensity, 100 percent artery blockage, and low national survival rate.
“Problem solved…so we thought,” said Johnson. “From June to October I was hospitalized several times. I received medications, a pacemaker/defibrillator, and the heart team attempted catheter ablation in my heart, four times, with no success due to 16 scars discovered in my heart.”
Johnson’s condition quickly deteriorated, however her faith was increasing daily.
“My faith was on fire! I felt God with me as I endured difficult procedures and had to make life decisions,” said Johnson. “Little did I know, I was about to become part of a miracle and a living testimony to God’s will, love, grace, and compassion.”
Johnson’s heart began to fail again and in October of 2016, Johnson’s cardiologist explained there was nothing more he could do to help her and transferred her to Oklahoma City for further care.
“I was transported by ambulance that evening, arriving ‘hot,’ code for dying,” said Johnson. “The doctors skipped the emergency room and took me directly to CICU where they performed triage to stabilize me.”
Johnson received a three-port catheter in the right side of her neck that was threaded into her heart.
“By now I was leaning on God Support with all my soul. Death was hovering over and around me. I was in a different city, had a new cardiac team, and had no idea how close to death I was,” said Johnson. “Less than 15 hours later I coded, yes died, two times in a row. Once I was stable again, I was taken down to the cath lab to be put on life support.”
A balloon pump was installed to keep Johnson’s heart beating. A second multi-port catheter was placed in the left side of her neck to her heart for medication administration and blood draws. She was on a heart monitor, had oxygen tubes in her nose, a bladder catheter due to the fluid buildup, and she was on diuretics to help remove excess fluid.
“I looked like the wife of Frankenstein, yet I was still alive,” said Johnson. “Between the excellent nurses and God granting me peace, we began to recognize the early signs of oncoming V-tach episodes. The process of stopping codes before they happened was repeated often during each day.”
It was soon determined that Johnson would need a heart transplant to survive.
“Worry ends when faith in God begins. I became a devout Christian follower during this time, no longer just a believer,” said Johnson. “Visitation was limited to help prevent any infection or complications. My attention and focus was on God Support with each breath I took. The outcome of all of this was ultimately in God’s hands, of that I was certain.”
On November 6, 2016, Johnson was offered a heart. A second round of blood typing, tissue/heart size matching and lab tests began to ensure she was infection free. For three hours she kept the good news to herself so as not to raise the hopes of her loved ones should the heart not be a perfect match.
“When I got the green light that prayers had been answered and the heart was a great match, I called DJ to share the miraculous news,” said Johnson. “Part of the miracle was that I would be receiving a heart after only 2 weeks on the transplant list. The miracle is that every day only six hearts are available to over 50,000 people waiting for one. I was deeply humbled by God’s grace and the gift of life that a young man, who I will not meet in person, had given to me.”
Johnson continues in good health to this day, volunteering, teaching a women’s exercise class, and serving as a therapy dog handler to visit other patients in need.
“I am thankful daily for the gift of life that I am blessed with. It is not an easy road being a transplant recipient. However, it is worth it,” said Johnson. “My grand-niece, Elline, recently said, ‘Aunt Shirley! You can come to my 5th birthday party because your new heart is used to you now!’ This, my friends, is what organ donation can do. Thumper (my heart) and I will be attending this birthday party and many more!”
Interested in becoming an organ donor? Register at www.lifeshareregistry.org, check the organ donation box on your driver’s license, or call 1-800-826-LIFE.