Just home from grocery shopping, Michelle Johnston pulled her truck into the driveway. As her daughter, Sydney, went to help her take the bags inside, Michelle bent down to give her a hug.
That’s when Michelle collapsed. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she took her last breath.
Michelle’s heart stopped. She was in sudden cardiac arrest.
Luckily, Michelle’s husband, Andy, and Sydney had just arrived home after being out for the evening. Seeing Michelle on the ground, Andy sent Sydney inside to quiet their barking dog, Dakota, while he called 9-1-1. He then returned to the garage and began administering CPR.
Andy learned the lifesaving technique in school, re-learned it in the military and had just been retrained through work. He started chest compressions, but grew tired as the minutes passed.
Still, he knew what he had to do until the ambulance arrived. He also had a 9-1-1 dispatcher on the phone for guidance and support.
“He told me that the minute he knew what happened, the only choice was to save me,” Michelle said. “His adrenaline kicked in and me being dead was not an option. Under every circumstance, he would fix it. He didn’t want to look at our daughter and tell her I’m not coming home.”
Andy performed CPR for seven minutes until emergency crews arrived. They worked on Michelle for several minutes before loading her into the ambulance.
She arrived at the hospital in a coma, but workers in the ER knew what had been happening because of vital information about her heart provided by a 12-lead EKG in the ambulance.
A team of doctors rushed to reduce Michelle’s body temperature and kept her in a hypothermic state to keep her brain from swelling and to preserve cognitive function. Then they waited, unsure if she would survive. After six days, Michelle woke up from her coma.
Michelle didn’t remember anything from several months prior.
“I woke up not realizing who I was,” said Michelle, who was 38 at the time. “I woke up not remembering I was married and had a child. I woke up thinking I was 20,’’ Michelle said. “I tell you I woke up loving (rocker) Billy Idol.”
She laughs now, but at the time it wasn’t funny.
“Waking up and not knowing who you are and realizing who you are and realizing you hadn’t done all these things in life was very devastating to me,” she said.
Having a brush with death brought things in clear focus. She realized that things she’d dreamed of accomplishing had been lost because her life “had become such a ball of busy.”
“It started coming to me, what had meant the most, what I wanted to do,” she said. “I came up with a ‘life-list.’ My list is all about living in the moment; stopping and smelling the roses and really being somewhere when you’re there.”
Almost five years later, Michelle is piling up the check marks. She’s learned to ski and golf, visited DisneyWorld, got her motorcycle license and bought a motorcycle, gone zip-lining, reconnected with friends and even met Billy Idol.
On June 3, through various connections that stemmed from speaking at an American Heart Association event, Michelle spent time with the rocker. He was in town for a concert and stopped for a custom-made pair of Timberland boots. Michelle was invited to the fitting and witnessed Billy Idol learn that she came out of coma thinking he was her boyfriend, and that meeting him was No. 2 on her “life-list” (behind going to DisneyWorld with her daughter). They posed for pictures, with Idol’s bass player capturing the priceless moment.
“Now, you can go home and show your husband we were together,” Billy Idol told her. He gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
She wants to accomplish other things like skydiving, knitting and appearing on NBC’s “Today” show to talk about CPR.
“It’s still on my list because I’m still going to get there someday,” Michelle said. “CPR is so essential. Everybody should know it. Everyone should learn it. You never know when you’ll need it,” she said. “Hey, this is the reason I’m here and the only reason I’m here.”
As the 1-year anniversary of her cardiac event approached, a friend who was a director of the American Heart Association’s Heart Walk and Go Red Luncheon in Michelle’s home state of Vermont asked if she would like to share her story. Michelle figured perhaps this was the reason God spared her life and decided to try to help others.
She worked to help pass a law in 2012 to ensure that every high school student in Vermont has an opportunity to learn CPR before graduation. Last year, she met with lawmakers in Washington, D.C., to lobby for funding. She serves on the board of directors of the American Heart Association in Vermont, chairs its media and communications committee, participates on the advocacy committee and has donated enough money to become a member of the Circle of Red.
“I try to give to them as much as I can because they have given so much to me,” she said. “What they’ve done for me is huge.”
The American Heart Association helped pioneer CPR more than 50 years ago, and continues to refine this lifesaving technique. The organization trains over 14 million people each year in 60-plus countries. Even without formal training, anyone can be a lifesaver by remembering the steps to “Hands-Only CPR” – call 9-1-1, then push hard and fast in the center of the chest, preferably to the beat of the classic disco song, “Stayin’ Alive” until help arrives.
When Michelle talks to groups, she speaks about making minimal changes in daily behavior. She encourages people to do one thing every day to live a heart-healthy life: Cut back on sodas. Stop adding salt to your food. Add a fruit or vegetable to your meal. Take a 10-minute walk.
“You’re going to realize you don’t have to make the drastic change,” she said, adding if you get off track, just hit the reset button.
Michelle said her doctor told her the reason she was alive is because she was healthy and eating right and that put her ahead of the game when it came to recovery. She had no family history of heart problems.
Still, the recovery process was slow and difficult. She had to relearn to walk and talk and had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) inserted in her chest to shock her heart if it beats abnormally.
“You really just have one heart,” she said. “It’s so essential to maintain your one life, because that’s all you’re going to get and, at the end of the day, it’s important you live it. I always tell people every day, `One heart. One life. Live it!’”
Photos courtesy of Michelle Johnston
Do you know a “Story from the Heart” we should tell?
Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org that’s as brief or as detailed as you’d like.
Previous “Stories from the Heart” include: