Athens man with heart failure now beating the odds

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These days Larry Johnson is back on his game.

"I'm feeling fine, believe it or not," the retired Barrow County elementary school principal says.

Just a year ago, things were much different.

"I was getting prepared to die," Johnson remembers.

Piedmont Athens Regional heart failure specialist Dr. Catherine Marti says Johnson is one of the most critically-ill patients she has ever treated.

"He was very ill," Dr. Marti says. "His heart was incredibly weak and had given out."

Larry and his wife of 40 years, Alzena Johnson, would eventually learn he was born with hereditary condition known as amyloid cardiomyopathy, that had been silently damaging his heart for decades.

At 63, the condition landed Johnson in the OR for open heart surgery to repair his aortic valve.

 "It's a day that is etched in my mind, June 8, 2017," Alzena Johnson says.

The Athens father of three rebounded quickly.

But, about six weeks later, coming home from church, Johnson told his wife he didn't feel well.

In the ER, a doctor diagnosed Johnson with a stroke.

"I said, 'A stroke? How did possibly he have a stroke,'" his wife says. "Well, that was the time that we found out that, not only did he have a stroke, but he also had heart failure."

Things got worse. 

Larry developed an infection in his repaired valve, landing him back in the ICU, where the Johnsons met Dr. Marti.

"He was incredibly ill," Marti says. "You cannot get more sick than Larry was at that time."

He was so ill, the Piedmont Atlanta heart transplant team began evaluating Larry for a transplant.

He was transferred to Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta for tests.

But, then, more bad news.

"We were told because of the infection, he didn't qualify for the transplant," Alzena Johnson says. 

"I thought about losing my husband. Living the rest of my life without my husband. Not having him around. That was more than I wanted to bear."

Back in Athens, Dr. Marti took over, getting Johnson on an IV drug to stabilize his heart, and several heart failure medications.

In February of 2018, Johnson was back in the OR, this time to receive a pacemaker to stabilize his heartbeat.

It was a breakthrough moment, his wife says.

 "When I saw him after that surgery, I knew that he was on the road to recovery," she says.

"His pacemaker is pacing all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, actively synchronizing or re-synchronizing, the way that his heart beats," Dr. Marti says.

Johnson says Dr. Marti convinced him he could survive, even with a failing heart.

"I went through all this stuff, and I actually thought I was going to die," he says.  "And, then, she gave me hope."

Johnson's prognosis is good, Marti says.

"I (initially) thought he may have weeks to months to live," she says.  "But now, I'm hoping he has many years, hopefully longer."

Today, Larry Johnson feels like himself again.

"He's doing great, driving, taking care of business," his wife says.  "Being the man that he was created to be."