By Cain Madden
Editor, The Tidewater News
Being a 16-year-old girl and getting through high school is hard enough on its own. For one local, that task got even tougher when her heart disease flared up, causing multiple surgeries in one month’s time.
That was three years ago for Sedley native Jenna Johnson. While she admits that the experience was tough, the 19-year-old also thinks it made her a stronger person, giving her a whole new take on life.
Jenna Johnson, left, with her cardiologist Dr. John Reed. Johnson had a rare form of heart disease that caused it to beat more than 250 times per minute when she got excited.
“I don’t know how I graduated, especially with honors,” said Johnson, who attended Southampton High School. “I missed so many days and I was in the hospital a lot. I actually went to school at CHKD [Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, Norfolk], which was pretty cool. A tutor comes to help you.”
But CHKD and her cardiologist, Dr. John Reed, meant a lot more to her than that. They helped her overcome the odds and be more today than a statistic of someone who succumbed to heart disease.
Those numbers — a person dies every 39 seconds from it — are scary.“Without my cardiologist, I wouldn’t be here,” Johnson said. “I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t have graduated from high school. I should have never had a chance to get married and have kids.”
But Johnson is here, and she wants to make the best of it. Back during the fall, she participated in her first American Heart Association Heart Walk at Mount Trashmore in Virginia Beach.
“When I was walking through the crowd, I didn’t know how to feel,” Johnson said. “I was happy to be there, but so many people were crying because they had lost someone to heart disease. That pushed me to want to do more.”
A couple of weeks before the Oct. 25 walk, Johnson had submitted a letter to the editor to The Tidewater News telling her story and encouraging donations. She’d raised $650, and after the walk she was hoping to do even more.
That chance came when she was sitting on the couch watching “Criminal Minds” on television. Suddenly, her phone made the sound letting her know that she had an email. It was from Teri Arnold, director of marketing for the American Heart Association.
“She was asking me to be a spokesperson,” Johnson said. “I was pretty excited — I wanted to jump up and down!”
Back when she was 16, before she had to have two emergency heart surgeries, the act of jumping up and down could have been bad news. Whenever Johnson would get excited — about a boy, about a class or about something as simple as drinking a Sundrop — it could have killed her.
Johnson’s adrenaline was causing her heartbeat to go over 250 beats per minute. Due to this, she talks slow and is very calm in her tone of voice, even today.
“It would hurt,” Johnson said about the episodes. “My chest would start shaking so much that you could see my shirt shaking. My heart couldn’t keep up with the oxygen and blood flow. I could feel my heart stop beating.”
While her heart would only stop for a few seconds or less at a time, the episodes could last for up to 12 hours. The condition exhausted her.
“I was always tired, and the medicine I was on for blood pressure made me more tired,” Johnson said. “I used to play softball, and I sometimes had trouble breathing when trying to run.”
It all started at 14, when she went to a doctor who misdiagnosed her and put her on medication that didn’t work.
“Always get a second look on something as important as your heart,” she tells people now, having learned the lesson the hard way.
Because of a bad opinion Johnson risked her life for two years before getting a new cardiologist, Dr. Reed at CHKD. He diagnosed her with a type of SVT — Supraventricular Tachycardia. After the second surgery, Reed was able to help her heart regulate properly when she got excited.
Even when it was regulated, heart disease was hard subject for her.
“I was so young, and it took me a while to start talking about it,” Johnson said. “I didn’t want it to be real. I could pretend if I did not talk about it.”
Now, she’s actually able to be excited to talk about it. Her story is on the American Heart Association’s website, www.goredforwomen.org/?story=jenna-johnson.
“I want to do more walks, and try to tell people about my story as much as I can,” she said. “I hope people can see my story and it helps them overcome an obstacle in their life.”
Johnson also wants to help people even beyond that. At Paul D. Camp Community College, she’s in the pre-nursing program looking to become a nurse practitioner.
“What I went through, it’s probably the reason I want to be a nurse,” Johnson said. “It just makes me feel better to give than to get something.”
With her new chance at life, Johnson wants to help people get through struggles like she had been through. She knows about the hard parts of working in the medical profession, but she’s also seen the good.
“In December, my cardiologist released me — I had no signs of heart disease at all,” Johnson said with a laugh and more excited tone. “I did jump up and down that day!”
By Cain Madden