The Give | Giving the Gift of Life

Giving the Gift of Life

The Johnston sons grew up learning how to give back. After a heart attack nearly claimed their mom, they knew where to channel the family’s giving.

Cyril and Andrea Johnston
Cyril and Andrea Johnston

It was May 8, 2020: Andrea and Cyril Johnston were looking forward to celebrating their 27th wedding anniversary. They were looking forward to a special day, despite the pandemic.

The party balloons had been ordered and preparations had been made for a pared-down celebration – definitely not the trip to Spain the couple had hoped for before the pandemic descended, but special nonetheless.

As morning broke on the anniversary day, it quickly became clear things were not going to turn out as expected.

Although there had been no obvious signs of a health problem, Ms. Johnston didn’t feel right when she first woke up around 5 a.m.

The 52-year-old got up and walked up and down the hall of the house, hoping to shake off the feeling of illness. Then she went back to bed and slept for about an hour. When she awoke, she vomited. She didn’t know that this was a red flag for something far more grave.

“I’m a bit unsure what happened after that. I said to Cyril, ‘Maybe I need an ambulance. Something is wrong.’ I’m sure he thought it might be COVID.”

Mr. Johnston wasn’t sure what to think, but with so much talk about COVID-19 and the pandemic, the idea that it might be the virus was in the back of his mind as he dialled 811 Tele-Care. By this time, Ms. Johnston was having trouble breathing.

Without asking, the Tele-Care operator told the couple an ambulance was on its way to their home.

“When the ambulance arrived, the paramedic said ‘Hello. My name is Corey. You are having a heart attack,"" Ms. Johnston recalls. “I said, ‘What! No,

I can’t be having a heart attack.’ I was thinking of images from the movies where people fall over, clutching their chests, gasping.”

Mr. and Ms. Johnston are prominent members of the Moncton business community with active lifestyles and a long track record of giving to various organizations through the Colpitts Family Foundation, the family’s foundation named after Ms. Johnston's family.

From a young age, their three sons were taught about the importance of philanthropy, of giving back.

The family would typically invite an organization or charity they were interested in to make a presentation to the family, including the boys. They have done this many times over the years in giving to groups like MADD, Sistema and health-care organizations for specific conditions like Alzheimer’s.

When the boys were young, the charities would bring colouring books and other materials to teach them about the work they were doing and why they needed support. As they got older, Mr. Johnston says, the boys would often ask challenging questions about the organizations, making sure the family donation was needed and appreciated.

When it came time for the Johnston’s to consider the 2020 donation from their foundation, there was no debate. It would go to the place that helped Ms. Johnston in her most dire moment of need.

In my case, we were very uncertain. We had no idea what was happening but I was able to get the help I needed in time. The doctors at the New Brunswick Heart Centre saved my life. - Andrea Johnston

Whisked away by the ambulance that day, Ms. Johnston was first taken to the emergency department of the Moncton Hospital. From there, she was sent again by ambulance to the New Brunswick Heart Centre at the Saint John Regional Hospital for the cardiac care she needed.

Mr. and Ms. Johnston had a quick visit before she was sent to Saint John.

“She was in great distress, but she still had a list of things for me to do that day, one of which was to pick up the 27 helium balloons for our wedding anniversary,” Mr. Johnston says. “I was in the hospital for only a few minutes, but I got my marching orders.”

"It is wonderful to see a family sharing that value from one generation to the next and their three sons being a part of those decisions."-Stephanie Fox, Vice-President

When she arrived at the Heart Centre in Saint John that morning, doctors quickly determined that Ms. Johnston had an 80 percent blockage in an artery to the left side of her heart. She says one stent, which looks like a tiny coil of wire mesh, was applied. The stent supports the walls of the artery and helps prevent it from renarrowing. The stent was put in place through her arm.

“There was no time wasted,” she says. “They knew what they were doing.”

Ms. Johnston stayed at the Regional for just one night then was taken back to the Moncton Hospital by ambulance to complete her recovery. Now, Ms. Johnston is back to her old self.

“We had an active summer,” Mr. Johnston says. “We took a trip to the Acadian peninsula and we did a challenging hike in Cape Breton, tackling some of the toughest trails in the Highlands National Park. She is right back to where she was before. It’s tremendous.”

Mr. and Ms. Johnston and their sons were only vaguely aware of the New Brunswick Heart Centre prior to their emergency. They are now keenly aware.

The Heart Centre at the Saint John Regional Hospital is New Brunswick’s only tertiary cardiac care centre and provides treatment to nearly a million Atlantic Canadians.

“I didn’t know much about the Heart Centre before this episode,” says Andrew Johnston, one of Cyril and Andrea’s sons. “The whole process worked out very well for my mom. She is very fortunate to have received the care she got. It put the Heart Centre front and centre in our minds."

When it came time for the family to decide what their foundation would support next, there was no hesitation – the New Brunswick Heart Centre.

Mr. Johnston says he hopes that the family donation to the Heart Centre will encourage others “to step up to the plate” and give. Stephanie Fox, Vice-President of the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation, says the support from the family foundation shows the true meaning of philanthropy and giving back.

“It is a really special gift for the Johnston family to make because of the care they received, and such a special gift for our NB Heart Centre to receive,” Ms. Fox says. “The Johnston family understands the vital role of philanthropy in advancing causes they care about. They have made giving a family focus." Ms. Fox says amazing things happen through philanthropy. While government budgets support standards of care, “but philanthropy brings everything to that next level that would not be possible without it.”

The Johnston family has learned several important lessons from Ms. Johnston's experience. While Ms. Johnston seemed to have almost no risk factors for a heart attack, she had overlooked her family history, especially her father and mother who both had cardiac problems.

The Johnston's sons
The Johnston's sons

“Family history is huge and I just had not thought about it,” she says. But perhaps the most important lesson from Ms. Johnston’s experience is that even vague symptoms have to be taken seriously by the patient and treated promptly. She says too many people die thinking they are simply having a bit of indigestion when, in fact, they are having a life-threatening heart attack.

“I think there are still too many people not surviving these events because they are not calling for an ambulance,” Ms. Johnston says. “Once you get to the Heart Centre, they will do everything they can to save your life."

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