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Heart to Heart12 People Discover Better Lives after Their Heart Attacks
By C. Bruce Johnson
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 C. Bruce Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMy Story
The pain was intense and unrelenting, and I immediately thought someone had shot me. My hands moved to my chest to put pressure on a hemorrhage that wasn't there. No blood. No hole in my starched, white dress shirt. I tore open the top buttons and pulled at the tie around my neck to get more air. The pain was somewhere deep in my chest, where I couldn't get to it.
My good friend and cameraman, Mike Fox, was driving.
"Damn, turn off the air."
I thought the contrast of the air conditioning in the car with Washington's summer heat and humidity might be causing the problem. Maybe it was just indigestion from the greasy burger I devoured at yet another lunch on the run. The pain pressed on, like a vise tightening my chest.
"Stop the car. Maybe I can walk it off." The news car pulled over to the curb on Stanton Road in Southeast. I knew the area well. I had done stories inside the elementary school that stood in the middle of the block. Shortly after I moved to D.C. from my first TV job in Cincinnati, I assigned myself to the rough Stanton Dwellings Public Housing project with another cameraman and friend, Mike Murphy. We documented the dailytwists and turns in the lives of Stanton Dwellings resident Barbara Price and her children.
Walking a few steps didn't ease the pain in my chest. It hadn't moved to my arm or anywhere else. I was worried, but not panicked. After all, I was only forty-two, in good shape, a tough street reporter in a tough town that critics like to refer to as "Murder Capital" of the country. I often took my camera crews into neighborhoods where some cops wouldn't dare go alone.
"Mike, get me to a hospital," I gasped. "Let's go to GW."
George Washington University Hospital is where President Ronald Reagan was taken when John Hinckley shot him in 1981, and it was on the way back to Channel 9. I was thinking, GW saved the president. It can save me too. They could check me out, and I could still make it to the station and get my story written and edited for the 6 p.m. news. Truth was, I didn't want to go to the neighborhood health-care facility, Greater Southeast Community Hospital. I had covered stories about horrible conditions there: uninsured patients, inadequate staff. It was a hospital with multimillion-dollar deficits that was unable to keep its accreditation. I feel bad saying it now, but honestly, if this turned out to be serious, I didn't want them cutting me up at Greater Southeast.
The pain wouldn't let up. Eventually I decided it was time to panic and began to worry that I wasn't going to make it across the Anacostia River through downtown to GW.
Mike had sensed something wasn't right with me all day long. He said I had been complaining most of the day-"bitchin" is the word he used. He said I seemed preoccupied.
The car headed for Suitland Parkway, which would have put us in the direction of GW, still a good fifteen-to-twenty-minute drive away, depending on the late-afternoon traffic. Spotting a firehouse, we both concluded I wasn't going to make it if we didn't stop there.
The car slammed into the drive on Irving Street. I recall my head being jerked backward. Mike threw the gearshift into park and leaped out in one sudden swoop. He raced toward the red brick building, leaving the driver's door open and the motor running.
"I need some help. I've got Bruce Johnson out there, and he's having a heart attack." I could hear him shouting at two people in blue uniforms who had probably already seen their share of life-or-death situations. Heart attacks probably run a distant third to assaults and killings in this part of town.
The fact is, few African-American men anywhere survive the ride to a hospital after having a heart attack. But then, a heart attack for a forty-two-year-old man of any color was still rare.
The paramedics seemed to be processing the information. They strolled out to the car with a stretcher, and once they looked inside and saw me, their demeanor changed. It was as if they thought, Damn, it really is one of those TV guys. They stepped it up after that. I should point out that had my attack come a few years later, I would have been out of luck because by then that firehouse was closed due to city budget cuts.
The paramedics didn't ask where I wanted to go, or if I had insurance. Most of the patients they transport are not covered. I wondered as I lay there if it really made a difference. With sirens wailing and lights flashing, they rushed me to-where else?-Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which was a couple of minutes away.
My pain subsided. Maybe the paramedic had given me nitroglycerin. I really can't remember. "Forty-two-year-old black male, probable heart attack," she reported over the radio.
The ambulance raced back in the direction Mike and I had already covered: Stanton Road, Alabama Avenue to Southern Avenue.... Mike was trailing us in the news car and somehow retained enough composure to do what he had been trained to do: report the story. Keeping his right arm on the steering wheel, he used his left hand to videotape the moving scenes with a 35-pound video camera. Later, he didn't remember doing it. News people-we really are peculiar.
* * *
I had arrived in Washington in 1976 as the youngest reporter ever hired by then-WTOP-TV, which today is WUSA-TV9, a CBS affiliate. I was twenty-five, with a wife and a toddler daughter. I had no health concerns, just a single job concern: to become the best broadcast journalist I could be.
My work was more than a career. It was a vocation, and it didn't scare me that I was arriving in the big city nearly broke, earning but $15,000 a year, slightly more than at my first job in Cincinnati at WCPO-TV. I would have come for less.
Getting to the nation's capital was the kind of opportunity my family members back home in Louisville, Kentucky, just didn't get that often. In fact, I was the first, so my mom and seven siblings were both proud and afraid for me. D.C. was a long way from the Cotter Homes housing projects where we started.
In Cincinnati I had completed work on my undergraduate and graduate degrees. Those helped get me to D.C., but once I arrived, on-the-job training kept me there. A lot of smart people don't make it and get fired in this business because they're not quick studies, can't handle the competition or the stress of deadlines. I had to learn quickly, or I was going to be sent packing. By the time I arrived, WUSA was the No. 1 station in town; sometimes its newscast audiences were double those of the nearest competitor.
The station was headed by legendary news director Jim Snyder. He hired me based more on a hunch than on my videotape resume. I wasn't sure why they even needed me. The team already included established news anchors Max Robinson, Gordon Peterson, Maureen Bunyan, JC Hayward, and eventually sports anchor Glen Brenner.
Veteran WUSA reporters like Mike Buchanan, Pat Collins, Andrea Mitchell, Bob Strickland, Patrick McGrath, Susan King, and Henry Tennenbaum were already top-shelf broadcasters. My job would be to bring energy, enthusiasm, and some investigative skills to cover the city streets and D.C. government. I would have to get better quickly. I did.
My baptism in Washington television came within a few months of my start. An armed group of terrorists took over three downtown buildings. The gunmen turned out to be Hanafi Muslims, and they were making several outrageous demands. They wanted the government to hand over the men who had been convicted of killing seven relatives-mostly children-of Hanafi leader Hamaas Khaalis.
It was a religious feud. Three people were killed in the takeover. One of them was my friend and colleague Maurice Williams, a twenty-four-year-old reporter for Howard University's radio station, WHUR. One of the Hanafis shot him point blank as he stepped out of a fifth-floor elevator in the District Building (City Hall). The Hanafis then shot a D.C. government special police officer, Mack Cantrell, as he was responding to the earlier gunfire. Mack later died of a heart attack while recovering in the hospital. Marion Barry, then a city councilman and later mayor, was also shot and wounded. He managed to stumble into the council chambers, where other legislators and their staffs were beginning to bar the doors and flip over tables to use as cover from the armed terrorists.
For two and a half days, under nerve-wracking and dangerous conditions, I and other reporters worked round the clock covering the story. It was the first time I had ever done live shots, which meant standing in front of a camera-with hundreds of thousands of viewers at home-explaining, often with no script or notes, what was going on while the story changed by the minute. "Shots have been fired inside the building, but it's impossible to determine who was shooting and whether there have been casualties." We had to fill a lot of air time, which often meant recapping or repeating the same information again and again.
There was no time to be afraid or nervous. Hell, there was little time to eat. I recall telling viewers in one live report, just minutes after learning it from police sources, that "trapped city workers are now being escorted down fire department ladders that stretch to the fifth-floor windows in the back of the building."
Channel 9's ratings went through the roof. Max Robinson's anchor work for the story turned out to be an audition for the ABC network, which eventually hired him as an evening news anchor from Chicago. Max became the first African-American anchor on network TV.
By the time my heart attack hit me, I had become a veteran street reporter and weekend anchor with a boatload of Emmy Awards in my trophy case, and I was still fishing for more.
* * *
On the day of my heart attack, I was on what I thought to be a routine assignment in Southeast D.C. We were hoping to make a story out of Mayor Sharon Pratt's summer-jobs program for local youths.
"If we can just get these kids some kind of work," the program director said, she was sure they would stay away from drugs and the notoriously dangerous neighborhood streets. I agreed but didn't think a summer-jobs program was a big enough incentive. Back in Louisville, two of my brothers had sold drugs and eventually were arrested and sent to prison.
The location was East Capitol Dwellings, the city's largest public-housing project, so big that it expanded into both the Northeast and Southeast quadrants of the District of Columbia. City officials would eventually give up on rehabilitating the place, instead tearing it down and replacing it with smaller and fewer detached, market-rate housing units.
My attention was drawn away from the long line of summer-job applicants at the community center to four young males watching, mockingly, from a distance.
In exchange for their interviews, I agreed not to reveal names and faces; then with camera rolling, they boasted that they already had gainful employment, albeit illegal. They were East Capitol Dwellings drug boys, fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen years old, who claimed to be earning hundreds of dollars a day selling reefer or crack.
I never believed the pay. They were exaggerating for the camera-and one another-but it was their story, not mine. What couldn't be hyped was the danger that surrounded their occupation. The drug boys proudly pulled up their shirts, eager to show off the long surgical marks from gunshot wounds to their abdomens. To them, these were battle scars, the cost of doing business on the streets. Those who survived multiple shootings earned immediate street credibility. Those who died got their sneakers tied together and tossed into the air until they draped over the telephone lines as lasting tribute to the fallen.
* * *
The doors swung open as I was rolled into the emergency room at Greater Southeast Community Hospital. Before, I had been here chasing ambulances with gunshot victims from the surrounding neighborhoods, maybe even one of those young men I had met minutes before on the street corner. What I now saw startled me. Doctors shouted orders, nurses scrambled to comply. Several sets of hands were all over me. Someone was cutting off my clothes. It was a good suit. Why, I wondered, were they so sure I wouldn't need it again? Someone put an IV needle in my arm, while someone else pasted leads on my chest that led to a telemetry machine monitoring my heart. I heard the blips the machine made and an occasional alarm when my heart skipped a beat.
An emergency room physician, Dr. Kenneth Larson, said when I spoke to him later, "You came in in severe pain. You were very, very upset that something awful was happening to you. You knew you were sick. I think you suspected that you were having a heart attack, but you didn't want to know it."
There seemed to be so many people milling around-a lot for the middle of the day in an ER. Was I the only sick patient here? I was given oxygen. My blood pressure and heart rhythm were taken. A second electrocardiogram seemed to confirm a big problem, although no one told me at the time. It didn't seem to be any of my business-saving my life! I was given a thrombolytic, or clot-busting, drug. I lost track of the pain and wasn't sure if that was because of the medication or a sense of dissociation. It was almost as if I had left the room. At some point Dr. Joseph Robinson appeared. He was whispering, checking the entire room, and I knew immediately that this was the guy in charge.
Dr. Robinson was the chief of cardiology at Greater Southeast. He's no longer there, and the hospital, after years of decline, was eventually bought by a private company that got millions of dollars from the D.C. government to close the deal. Without the cash infusion, Greater Southeast would have been taken off life support and eventually closed, leaving the entire area east of the Anacostia River without a hospital of any kind.
Dr. Robinson's day had been routine until I showed up. Here members it this way:
I was in my office near the ER when I got the call from my ICU colleague that we had a VIP in the ER with an acute coronary event. Greater Southeast was not the kind of place that had many VIP's so I was curious. As always my mind was thinking through our protocol for heart attacks: diagnose, administer thrombolytic or clot-buster therapy, and stabilize. When I looked at the EKG strip the nurse gave me, I knew we had a serious problem. When she told me the patient was just forty-two years old, my concern grew. Bruce had the type of heart attack that has been called "the widow maker." Fifty percent of these patients die before ever getting to the hospital. Of the remaining fifty percent, another half doesn't make it no matter how well they are treated. I didn't have to ask which bed Bruce was in; the noise behind the curtain was the giveaway. Didn't anybody tell them the last thing heart-attack patients need is excitement? I poked my head around the curtain and saw half of Channel 9 surrounding a man I recognized as the normally confident reporter I was used to welcoming into my home. But the man I saw was clearly as nervous as he could be. Bruce had the look associated with the word "doom." I stood there with my arms folded and introduced myself. There was silence, and everyone simply evaporated. I remember Bruce's first words to me: "You must be important. Am I dying?" "Sir," I said, "you've certainly had a massive heart attack, but I'm here now, and I've been doing this a long time, and my patients don't die." It was a white lie, of course but it was the right thing to say.
I'm not sure if I ever believed everything Dr. Robinson told me. I always had a healthy mistrust of anyone in authority, including doctors. But I knew my life had slipped out of my hands, and that I was going to get through this only if God wanted me to, so I surrendered then and there. I didn't want to die, but if it was going to happen, no one would say I went kicking and screaming.
Excerpted from Heart to Heart by C. Bruce Johnson Copyright © 2009 by C. Bruce Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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