Lela Johnson, Cardiac Patient

Lela Johnson was walking toward the front door at Borgess-Pipp Hospital in Plainwell for her first day of work there two years ago when she suddenly felt the need to sit down on a bench just outside the door.

"I was just going to rest a minute," said the 67-year-old former Plainwell Police dispatcher.

"The next thing I know I'm in the ER," she said. "They told me I had had cardiac arrest."

What followed was a test of resolve for Johnson, an Illinois native who has lived in and near Kalamazoo since 1961. Over the next year she had two major surgeries, spent seven months and two days in a hospital, needed five ambulance rides and lost more than 60 pounds in weight.

After an initial assessment and treatment at Borgess-Pipp, Johnson was transferred to Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo where doctors implanted an automatic defibrillator and a pacemaker. The pacemaker helps keep her heart rate steady and the defibrillator stands by to shock her heart if the beat goes out of control.

Johnson went home on January 28, 2005, four days after the cardiac arrest. She soon needed more medical attention when a doctor prescribed a medication that, unknown to them, proved to have unexpected and undesirable side effects.

Subsequent tests showed that both valves in her heart were leaking blood and she was told that she would need open heart surgery to either repair or replace the valves.

Surgery to repair the leaky heart valves was performed on May 3 that year.

"I came through the surgery just fine," she said. But while in the critical care unit she developed a kind of pneumonia called bronchiolitis obliterans organized pneumonia, or BOOP for short. In the condition, chronic scarring blocks the lung's small airways, which was caused by the medication prescribed by the doctor.

Johnson's lung condition had worsened and doctors had to concentrate on helping her breathe and she needed a tracheotomy, a small hole in her neck to help with breathing.

BOOP is a serious problem and Johnson remained at Borgess Medical Center until June 13 and then was transferred to Borgess-Pipp. When there, she developed a slight bleeding problem and was returned to BMC where an examination revealed a mass in her large intestine.

She returned to Borgess-Pipp on June 28 and on August 24 was transferred to Metron of Greenville for further rehabilitation for her lung condition.

"At Greenville I was so weak that I couldn't walk or dress myself," Johnson said.

She returned home from Greenville on December 5, 2005, and began physical therapy to regain her strength and ability to walk.

Once her strength returned, she was admitted to Borgess Medical Center in late December for an operation to remove 17 inches of her large intestine and the mass, which proved to be benign.

On New Year's Day 2006 she was home yet again.

Johnson, who weighed 195 pounds on that first day of work in June 2005, now weighs 133 and is slowly being weaned from the oxygen she has needed since the start of her problems.

"Lela was a great patient," said Dr. Terry Baxter, Chief Medical Officer at Borgess Medical Center. "She had a very positive attitude the whole time, despite a number of set-backs. She participated very well in her therapy."

Baxter was Borgess-Pipp's Chief Operating Officer and Chief Medical Officer during part of the time that Johnson was undergoing treatment there.

Johnson's positive attitude undoubtedly played a role in her recovery, said Dr. Abdul Shaikh, her doctor at Borgess Family Medicine.

"When a patient faces so many illnesses together, the final outcome can be determined by a good attitude," Shaikh said. "I saw that in Lela. She always had a positive perspective, even when the news was not good."

"She was also a very compliant patient, a very nice patient, who always did what she was told, and that affected the final good outcome."

"The most difficult problem from a physician's perspective was weaning Johnson from her need for oxygen via a ventilator," Baxter said. "She was someone who didn't have the best lungs," she said. "That's why we sent her to Greenville. It's a long-term ventilator care unit."

Bright and energetic, Johnson talks matter-of-factly about her experiences and the care she received during the whole ordeal.

"Through it all,” she said, “I never once thought, 'Why me?' And I never thought that I would die. I told the Lord that what I was going through was more than I could handle and that I was leaving it in His hands."

These days Johnson returns to Borgess-Pipp to talk with patients and help them through their health problems.

"My minister tells me that I minister differently than he does," she said. "That's because I've been there. When I tell the patients my experiences it helps give them hope."

She said she often holds a patient's hand since she knows how important a gentle touch was to her during her ordeal.

"I tell the people that the doctors and nurses know all about book work, but that you (the patient) and I know how scary it can be, not knowing what's going to happen."

Johnson had nothing but praise for the care she received at the two hospitals.

"Oh, gosh, I got such good care at Pipp and at Borgess hospital," she said. "I can't say enough about the hospitals and the staffs and the care they provide."

And she's looking to the future with enthusiasm.

"I would love my old job back," she said, "even though I never got through the front door!"