Melissa Johnson - Michigan
I was 37 when I was told that I had been born with a congenital heart defect, a Bicuspid Aortic Valve while at the hospital after passing out in my office at work. I was introduced to a cardiologist the next day who told me that I would have to have it replaced earlier than expected. I than began having yearly appointments to monitor my heart until August 2013. I began to notice that I was having shortness of breath simply by walking up stairs, sometimes having to stop to “settle” my heart from racing. I also noticed that the tightness in my chest was more frequent than before. My fiancé Steve was very concerned and convinced me that I needed to call my cardiologist. I had another echocardiogram and was told that I needed replacement surgery as soon as possible as my heart was showing signs of enlargement. He was very honest in saying that it was really important that I did not “brush” my symptoms aside. An aortic valve replacement operation was scheduled but before I would make it to surgery, a tragic event will cause a delay.
On September 8, 2013, without knowledge of any major heart issues, my fiancé, Steve Dunning passed away from a massive heart attack. He had been taking high blood pressure medication, had his blood pressure under control and was two month post his yearly physical. He was playing basketball at a local park with a group of young people that he had been coaching and/or teaching for years. Although physicians believe he passed away before he fell to the ground, the police told me that out of all the people that were present, no one knew how to perform CPR, they just knelt next to him and waited….for 8 minutes… until emergency responders arrived. Daily, I am haunted by what could have been done as well as the guilt that I know a few of these young community members have because they watched who they referred to as “Coach” and “Superman” lay helpless and had no idea how to help. About six months later, I recalled a memory of when I came to the park and watched a team of professionals attempt to save Steve’s life, hearing “I’m sorry, I didn’t know what to do”. A 47-year old father, granddaddy, coach, educator, friend and the love of my life was taken too soon.
It wasn’t until July 2015 that I made the decision to have open heart surgery. I simply was not able to handle even walking into a cardiologist’s office since Steve’s death. It was a life changing decision to save my own life. After surgery, I was struggling to recover despite the fact that I was 44 years old and in good physical shape. The symptoms seemed to continue. On the second anniversary of Steve’s passing, I was told by my heart team that I had a patient-prosthetic mismatch due to my aortic root being too small and would need to have yet another surgery. This time, I will have to have an Aortic Homograft. A homograft is a procedure where the patient's organ is replaced using a donor's organ. In terms of aortic homograft, the patient's aorta is replaced with a donor's aorta. This next surgery provides me yet another chance, because someone else didn’t get one.
It hit me. I realized that if there was ever a time to dare to make a difference, my time was now. For me and for the legacy of Steve. I have to share my story of great love lost and great love survived to educate others. Never did I imagine my journey would take me from education of congenital heart defects, to the importance of living a heart healthy lifestyle and today the passion for driving the necessity for CPR to be taught in our school systems. More CPR trained individuals in our communities, more celebrations of life. Bystander CPR, provided immediately after sudden cardiac arrest can double or triple a victim’s chance of survival. Five minutes is the difference between life and death. If no CPR is provided or no defibrillation occurs within 3 to 5 minutes, the chances of survival drop. Join me in making sure that we can save the life of someone's Steve.