Ed. Note: Ray Johnson just received an award for his volunteer work. He’s the living example of no excuse is good enough to not give back to your community.
With the cooperation of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba, here is his inspiring story.
Heart disease impacts people of all ages and spans across generations. Nobody knows that better than Ray Johnson and his three-year-old grandson, Atli, of Portage la Prairie.
Both Ray and Atli have had to fight their own personal battles with cardiovascular disease.
Ray was just 42 when he first began experiencing heart problems.
“We were returning from a weekend with family when I started having this dull ache in my chest.
I got to the point where I couldn’t drive and had to stand at the back of the motor home, hanging on to one of the bunks,” he said.
Ray went immediately to the Portage hospital where he underwent a series of enzyme tests and was sent to Winnipeg for an angiogram. Soon after he was told he had suffered a minor heart attack.
“When I asked the doctor why I was having a heart attack at 42, his terse response was, ‘you picked the wrong parents.’”
This was upsetting news for Ray and his wife Norma, who knew heart disease was prevalent in the Johnson family; Ray had three brothers with heart problems and his father died of a blood clot at just 67.
“Back in the ’50s when you had hardening of the arteries, you had hardening of the arteries and nothing could be done about it. I was given a better chance than my father had,” he said.
Ray was put on a beta blocker and Aspirin® and told by his doctor to start walking and work his way up to running two miles a day. He was able to keep his heart trouble at bay mainly with a controlled diet and daily exercise.
“At that time, there was no talk of blood pressure control or cholesterol assessment. I just walked and ran everyday in all kinds of weather and got the two mile per day routine by spring. I had regular angiograms done, but by the third year of this I remember the assistant remarked, ‘well that was a waste of time,’ and I guess that meant mission accomplished!”
It wasn’t until ten years later, during that stressful time at the end of the 1992 school year when Ray, a principal and math teacher, experienced the return of that same dull ache. He had further tests but wasn’t diagnosed with unstable angina until after his retirement in 1996. It was in December of that year when Ray was treated with an angioplasty with stent procedure, which opened up the blockage and allowed him to be free of pain for some time.
Another ten years later, in 2005, Ray was keeping busy in his retirement working long days driving truck for the potato harvest, hunting and cutting wood when, as he put it, ‘Madam Angina’ came back to visit.
He went for an angiogram at St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg and was told he had three clogged arteries and would require triple bypass surgery. This news was difficult to take, as this was supposed to be a joyous time; the Johnson’s only daughter Raelene Grimolfson was due for the arrival of their first grandchild.
“I had been down the road with dad and his heart in the past and it was always a bit nerve wracking,” said Raelene. “But I knew my dad was in good hands; my only disappointment was that because I was quite pregnant at the time, I couldn’t be as much help as usual with driving and visiting,” she said.
Ray was placed on a waiting list for bypass surgery, but was told he needed to stay in Winnipeg, so they stayed at a friend’s house that night. It was at around 2 a.m. when Ray began experiencing chest pains that wouldn’t go away. He woke up Norma and told her that they needed to go back to the hospital.
“That’s when things really went crazy,” said Ray. “We left the house, locked the door, and went to the car but the battery was stone dead. We hadn’t taken a key for the house we were staying at so I dialed 911 on my cell phone and told the dispatcher of the situation – chest pains, locked out, dead car and 20 below. Her response was, ‘help is on the way.’”
Ray said he could hear the sirens the minute he closed his cell phone.
“That was the best thing that could have happened to us, actually, because I got cared for right away by the ambulance paramedics and the hospital was ready for me when I arrived.”
No longer required to be on a waiting list, Johnson was treated immediately with triple bypass surgery. Ray’s daughter Raelene and her husband Darren drove in to Winnipeg from Portage to visit.
“I remember going up to see him after his surgery and we joked about how we are going to be in the hospital at the same time, and as it turned out, we were!” said Raelene, who soon went into labour and was admitted to a bed just one floor up from her father.
“It was kind of cute,” laughed Raelene. “The day Atli was born, my dad was being discharged, and my mom was going up and down the elevator trying to be with us both.”
Raelene, 37, had a normal and healthy pregnancy, and it wasn’t until she was in labour that staff picked up an irregularity in Atli’s heart rate. Raelene was sent for an emergency c-section and what started out as a joyous occasion quickly turned into a nightmare for the new parents when they learned that their newborn son Atli was diagnosed with chaotic atrial tachycardia (irregular heart beat).
Atli was immediately treated with an electric paddle to restart or ‘flip’ his heart to a normal rhythm. Doctors stopped and started his heart several times.
“It can be painful, so they decided they wouldn’t do that to him again until he was a few months older,” said Raelene. Atli went straight into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and was transferred to the Health Sciences Centre where he would remain for three weeks. Raelene tried to get moved to Health Sciences as well, but ended up having to stay at a friend’s home in Winnipeg for the three week duration.
“It was hard because I didn’t get to have him right away and I couldn’t be with him. We didn’t know what was wrong, or if he was going to live,” said Raelene, who together with her husband visited their son in hospital everyday throughout his ordeal.
“She missed not having Atli in the hospital like other mothers did. She was very strong though all this,” said Ray, who was concerned about his grandson all throughout his own recovery. “I wasn’t that mobile but they were able to take me to hospital to see him.”
“I could relax with Ray because he was recovering,” said Norma. “My focus was on Raelene and Atli at that time. My faith is what got me through.”Eventually, Atli was sent home with medication to control his heart rate, which Raelene said was unheard of at that time. “He is so good,” said Norma proudly. “He takes his meds three times a day; in the morning, at supper and at 12 a.m. at night, and chews his Aspirin® once a day.”
The parents have had to be very vigilant, watching Atli to ensure his lips don’t turn blue and that he is getting enough oxygen. Eventually, when Atli is bigger, he may be able to receive laser surgery on his heart, however the parent’s have chosen to wait and see if it is necessary, as there are always potential risks with surgery.
“Originally they told us Atli may not be able to play organized sports, but of course that’s all he wants to do now,” laughed Raelene. “Now our cardiologist says let him play.” Today, Ray and Atli are a healthy, active pair and Ray is very grateful to be able to spend time with his grandson, playing ball or just going fishing. “Ray can do anything,” said Norma. “He volunteers, fishes, hunts, cuts wood, reads, renovates our house, tutors math, and sits on six different committees!”
Ray has been a long time volunteer for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba’s annual Door-to-Door campaign as a Kit Captain during Heart Month each February.
“There have been a lot of advancements made in heart treatment thanks to the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Twenty-five years ago, would it have been possible for a baby like Atli, with a heart rate over 200, to go home with his parents? Both Atli and I have benefited from the efforts of doctors and researchers to refine procedures for heart surgery and develop medications and treatments that extend the lives of patients of all ages,” said Ray.
“We’ve benefited on so many fronts and on so many levels in our family,” said Raelene. “We know it could have been much worse for Atli. Even just being in the NICU with the other babies that were sick, we knew Atli was probably going to be okay and we were lucky to be able to take him home and keep him home, so we have to be thankful for that.”
Nobody is exempt from cardiovascular disease. In Canada, about one of every 100 babies is born with some form of heart defect. These heart defects range from a tiny hole that will never require treatment, to a life-threatening condition that could require multiple surgeries.
Cardiovascular disease continues to be the number one cause of death in Manitoba and across Canada. Chances are you know someone, whether it is a family member, a friend, a partner, or co-worker, who has been impacted by this devastating disease. Help fund research that continues to give people like Ray and his grandson Atli the best chance at life.
With your donation, we all win. Donate now.
Courtesy of the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Manitoba