Journalist Tells Of Having Massive Heart Attack At Age 42

Heart attack survivor and broadcast journalist Bruce Johnson was only 42 when he had a massive heart attack. He chronicled his experience and its aftermath as well as that of that of others who had had heart attacks without ever knowing they were at risk. Host Michel Martin speaks with Johnson and Barbara Robinson, one of the survivors profiled in the book.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we want to turn to one of the leading health issues in this country: heart disease. More than a million people have heart attacks every year. And often when we think of heart disease, we think about middle-aged white men like former Vice President Dick Cheney, who might have a high-stress job or carrying a little bit of extra weight.

But heart disease affects all kinds of people, many of whom may have no idea that they are at risk, people like Bruce Johnson. He was just 42 years old, a television reporter, an anchor here in Washington, D.C. He thought he was healthy and fit - until he had a heart attack. His experience led him to write about not only his experience, but that of other survivors, especially those, who like him, might never have thought they might be at risk.

His new book is called "Heart to Heart." And Bruce Johnson is here with us now. Also joining us is one of the women he profiled in the book, fellow heart attack survivor Barbara Robinson. Welcome to you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BRUCE JOHNSON (Reporter; Author, "Heart to Heart"): Michel, thanks a lot.

Ms. BARBARA ROBINSON: Thank you, Michel, for having us here today.

MARTIN: Now Bruce, the first chapter is your own story. And it is quite riveting. I think it's fair to disclose that you and I are actually quite good friends, and I've known you for quite a long time, and I had no idea. So if you could take us back to that day. How did you know you were having a heart attack?

Mr. JOHNSON: I don't know. I just knew something was wrong. I was on assignment in a tough neighborhood. This group of young men - who were across the street selling drugs from a site where other young people were signing up for the mayor's summer jobs program. So, you know, I go across the street and say to these alleged drug dealers, why don't you go sign up for the program? Make a long story short, while we're talking, I'm feeling this tightness in my chest, which I quickly ignored - it's probably, you know, from lunch.

As we headed back to the station, I'm thinking I'm going to put a piece on the air for the 6 o'clock news. I get this tightening in the chest. And as we go further, it gets worse. So I said, let's head to G.W. Hospital. I'll get checked out, still get to the station in time.

Make a long story short, we never made it. We ended up pulling into a firehouse. They came out and looked at me, and immediately slapped me on a gurney and rushed me to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. And Dr. Joseph Robinson comes in and after a series of EKGs, he says, you've had a massive heart attack. It was an incredible, eye-opening, news headline to me. I wasn't a candidate for a heart attack.

MARTIN: You are very candid in the book about all the things that brought you to that place at that time. You had had a pack-a-day cigarette habit earlier in your life. You know that there were points in your life where you were drinking too much alcohol. In retrospect, were those the reasons that you were vulnerable to cardiovascular disease?

Mr. JOHNSON: We never know, do we? I mean, there are people who smoke all these lives and who drink heavily who don't have heart attacks, perhaps because they've got good DNA. I can't even tell you what my DNA was like because I didn't know my natural father.

So, on my own, and another instance with some help, you know, stop smoking, stop drinking, a year, two years before, and so I'm thinking I'm not a candidate. I've done what I need to do. Well, it turns out, whatever I did wasn't enough. I was a candidate. And at some point in time, I realized that I had to make some serious lifestyle changes.

MARTIN: We're going to talk about that in a minute, what some of those changes are, particularly the ones that you recommend to other people. But one of the things that you do in this book is focus on people who like yourself, are not people who people necessarily think of as candidates for cardiovascular disease. And you spent a lot of time talking about women. You say that more American women are killed by cardiovascular disease than by breast cancer and all other diseases combined.

And you say that African-American women, like Barbara Robinson, are 60 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular causes than white women are. And I would imagine if you stop five people on the street right now, they'd be surprised by that. I wonder why it is that we don't think about women, many of whom you profile in the book?

Mr. JOHNSON: The two things you point out were just shockers to me, OK? And that's when I knew - how cardiovascular disease was having an impact on women - that I'd have to do more than just one token woman in this book. A couple of things I learned from doctors is - I was doing the research for this they didn't teach doctors in medical school about women and cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.

They didn't teach doctors then about heart attacks and cardiovascular disease in African-Americans, period. Lou Kanda, a noted African-American cardiac surgeon at the Washington Hospital Center told me, if you brought him two hearts and he had one in each hand, he could look at the heart and tell you which one belonged to a white person and which one belonged to a black person. By that he meant, by the time we get to the hospitals, we're in worse shape.

MARTIN: Barbara, what about you? Let's hear your story. You were 51 when you had your heart attack, but you were athletic?

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes.

MARTIN: You were at a pretty good weight, you worked out. What do you think brought you to that place, and how did you realize that something was wrong?

Ms. ROBINSON: I was sitting at my desk at work, just like youre sitting there. And I felt this tightness in my chest. You remember the story - how it goes up your arm, the numbness goes up your arm and it locks your jaw. Well, that's what happened to me. And my boss ran and got an aspirin and put it under my tongue, and by that time they called the ambulance, I could barely see straight.

You know, so, in the ambulance they're saying, you had a heart attack. I was shocked as much as anybody else. My family was shocked. I've always been athletic. Always been my cholesterol has been good. And to this day, Dr. Robinson, we share the same doctor, Bruce and I, and he can't figure out to this day - the only thing we can think of, it was inherited.

MARTIN: One of the things that I like about your story is that you are have a very positive outlook. I mean, you had a lot of struggle earlier in your life, you know, some men who didn't do right by you. But you kind of took those lemons and made lemonade, but you've also had to make some real changes in your life.

Ms. ROBINSON: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: In order to deal with this. Can you tell us what some of those are?

Ms. ROBINSON: Some of those are, well, I've always exercised and now I continue even more committed to exercise on a daily basis. And Im committed to keeping this body in good shape and eating properly. And that's what more African-American women should think of. It not only affects you when you have a heart attack, but it affects your family as well.

MARTIN: Bruce, one of the things you talk about in the book with women is that they often they think about everybody but themselves. You write about one person, Mary Maguire(ph) of Wheeling, West Virginia, who when she realized she was having heart pain - I don't want to criticize her husband - you report in the book that he took a shower; he did some other things before he got her to the hospital. And I wonder how common that is, particularly with some groups. Maybe people don't take it as seriously.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah. And the question becomes how seriously, really, did Mary take it? She didn't have her driver's license, OK? As she relates the story, she called and said, can you come pick me up? I don't feel well. And she couldn't get him on the phone. Make a long story short, he didn't show up, so she walks almost three miles, in cardiac arrest, home. Even after she gets home, she won't call a neighbor. She doesn't call the kids. She lies there in pain throughout the night.

But, finally, you know, when he gets there, it's let me sleep on it and you go to sleep and we'll see how, you know, we both feel in the morning. Well, the next morning, he says, let me take a shower first, then we'll go to the hospital. And so, eventually, you know, he takes his shower and they get to the hospital and it turns out it was very serious. She needed emergency bypass. Too often, women have been conditioned to take care of everybody and anything else but themselves.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with heart attack survivor Bruce Johnson about his new book, "Heart to Heart." He tells his story and that of other heart attack survivors, especially those who many people might not think might be vulnerable to cardiovascular disease.

I'm also speaking with Barbara Robinson. She is one of the heart attack survivors profiled in the book. Barbara, do you think that's true of you? Do you think that perhaps had you not been at work and had your boss not said, you know, you're in serious trouble, lady, I got to we got to get you to the hospital, do you think that maybe that would've been your reaction, too?

Ms. ROBINSON: I'm pretty sure it would've been, because, first of all, it's a shocker and you don't realize, you know, what's happening. I was a single mom at the time, so I'm always taking care of my children, making sure they have what they need. Every day after work, make dinner, whatever. So, you know, it's just hard on women because we don't focus on ourselves.

MARTIN: You know, Bruce, how did you deal with the sense of vulnerability that you must've felt? And looking ahead at your career and certainly not wanting to dial back, being at the height of your career and wanting to take on the big stories and do all that, how did you deal with that?

Mr. ROBINSON: You feel very vulnerable. I write about in this book, also of a lot of my life and some of the hardships prior to this heart attack. And Barbara and I talked about that because I believe that when you've had to overcome adversity in the past, you bring that into the fight. And you're in for the fight of your life when you have a heart attack and you're recovering from a heart attack. Because as Barbara and I were talking, she was saying over lunch, you've got to make some serious lifestyle changes.

MARTIN: But what are some of the things that you've had to do? 'Cause you continue to practice your profession. What are some of the things that you've done to accommodate this new reality and to still function?

Mr. ROBINSON: Absolutely. Number one, I surrendered, and I allowed other people who knew better than me, you know, to come into my life. I mean, I was surrounded by a nutritionist. There was physical therapy, you know, as part of my cardiac recovery. I had to change everything about what I thought was good for me. I started exercising with some intellect. I started, you know, listening to my heart rate, wearing a heart monitor, and I started running. And eventually, you know, went on to, you know, complete a marathon. And I did this under the supervision of my doctor and others.

MARTIN: Wow. Barbara, what about you? What are some of the things that you've done to accommodate this new reality? And was it hard for you - I have to say, as a mom, to make space in your life to exercise and to eat right and to be sure you're doing what you need to do for yourself.

Ms. ROBINSON: The sad part about it, Michel, I was already doing everything possible. I've always exercised. I've always eaten properly. So, I couldn't have thought of anything different. I just continued, after I had the heart attack, to do continue and to do even more, be even more committed.

MARTIN: What advice do you have for other people who might be hearing our conversation and saying to themselves, well, that's, you know, that has nothing to do with me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBINSON: Well, I think we thought the same thing, all 12 candidates in that book. Until it hits you personally, then you'll change your mind on that statement, because we're all vulnerable to heart attack.

Mr. JOHNSON: And I think two groups of people are going to hear this. There's going to be that group that are going to realize, because they knew it before anyway, yeah, I am high-risk. My parents, you know, had strokes, heart attacks, that sort of thing.

The other group, if you haven't had a history of cardiovascular disease, you know, heart attacks in your family, and you might be young, you might say, well, you know, this has nothing to do with me. And Barbara and I were talking, number one, know your DNA. You know, look at your family history first. Anybody can do that, you know. And if you can't, if you can't come up with answers by looking at your DNA - like in my case, I couldn't, and Barbara says in her case, she couldn't - then treat yourself as high-risk. You will be better off for it. And that way, you're doing all that you can.

MARTIN: Bruce Johnson is an Emmy award-winning reporter and anchor for WUSA-TV here in Washington, D.C. That's a CBS affiliate. He is a heart attack survivor. He wrote about his experience, and that of a dozen other people, in "Heart to Heart," his new book.

Barbara Robinson is a heart attack survivor who was profiled in the book, and they were both kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studio. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. JOHNSON: Thank you for having us.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you, Michel.

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