Sandpoint Resident Lives Life to the Fullest, Despite Major Cardiac Events
By Stacie Jones
Gary Johnson was in the midst of an exciting career fighting fires for the U.S. Forest Service. During that career, he had spent 15 years as a smoke jumper, hurling himself out of planes into the burning wilderness to fight flames in Alaska and along the West Coast. But in 1998, at the age of 51, Gary found himself in a different kind of fight: a fight for his life.
“I was running a lot at the time to stay fit for my job,” Gary said. “But I began experiencing chest discomfort and shortness of breath when I ran, and then one day I couldn’t even walk around the block.”
Gary, suspecting problems with his lungs from years of inhaling wildfire smoke, visited his doctor. Gary’s lungs were fine, but his heart was failing.
The Heart of the Matter
“I didn’t understand how this could happen. I was young, I never drank or smoked excessively, and I was always in great physical shape,” he said.
As it turns out, Gary’s heart problems were genetic. His grandfather, his father and his brother had all been diagnosed with heart disease. In 1998, Gary underwent quadruple bypass open heart surgery. On that day, he promised himself he wouldn’t let this setback slow him down.
“I love life here on earth, and I love my family,” he said. “I knew that with their support, and with my strong faith in God, I would get through it.”
After six weeks of recovery, and with encouragement from his wife, Diane, and daughters, Emily and Dawn, the self-professed thrill seeker was once again rafting rivers and climbing mountains. Gary returned to his job in the U.S. Forest Service, trading in his firefighting gear for an administration position as a fire management officer.
Second Time’s the Charm
Gary retired in 2004 after 40 years with the Bureau of Land Management. He and Diane moved from Nevada to Sandpoint, Idaho. The region’s renowned skiing, hiking and biking opportunities fulfilled Gary’s thirst for adventure. In 2010, during a walk alone through the woods behind his Sandpoint-area home, Gary was struck again.
“The pain was incredible,” he said. “But I knew I had to get home. I wouldn’t let myself quit. I knew if I passed out, I wouldn’t wake back up again.”
He crawled on hands and knees, across a creek, back to his home. Diane rushed him to the emergency room in Sandpoint, where it was confirmed that Gary had had a severe heart attack. An air ambulance flew him to Kootenai Health in Coeur d’Alene. His doctors removed the blood clot and implanted a heart stent.
“The treatment I got at Kootenai was incredible,” he said. “I think that stent saved my life.”
Many Years Ahead
Now, in 2016—despite two major cardiac events—Gary continues to lead an active lifestyle. He hits the slopes at Schweitzer during the ski season, he hikes the Selkirk Mountains, he bikes the region’s trails and he works part-time as a Bonner County marine deputy on Lake Pend Oreille.
“I don’t want my heart health to define my life,” Gary said. “Life is a gamble for everyone. It has its ups and downs. I just try to get out there and enjoy it.”
Russell Blakely, M.D., Gary’s physician at Kootenai Heart Clinics Northwest in Sandpoint, said there is some risk that comes with exercise, especially rigorous exercise, after a cardiac event, but the long-term benefits of regular physical activity far outweigh the risks.
“Patients need to be mindful of their bodies and not push themselves too hard,” he said. “Their bodies will give them clues if there’s a problem. Symptoms to watch for include the obvious chest pains, unexpected shortness of breath, and new swelling, for example.”
Blakely said Gary’s commitment to a healthy and active lifestyle—combined with his positive outlook on life—are key factors in his successful recoveries.
“A big part of recovery is the patient’s willingness to do the hard work to take care of himself through cardiac rehabilitation, physical activity, a healthy diet and taking his medications,” Dr. Blakely said. ”But Gary is also a great example of the sort of unscientific gift that comes with a good attitude.”