"The pain was intense and unrelenting," Bruce Johnson wrote in his recently released book "Heart to Heart: 12 People Discover Better Lives After Their Heart Attacks." My hands moved to my chest to put pressure on a hemorrhage that wasn't there. No blood. No hole in my starched, white dress shirt. The pain was somewhere deep in my chest where I couldn't get to it.
Johnson, a television reporter with local CBS affiliate WUSA 9, was having a heart attack. He was on assignment at East Capitol Dwellings in far Northeast, when it struck. His cameraman rushed to the nearest fire station. Johnson was taken to Greater Southeast Community Hospital and later flown to Washington Hospital Center.
"The kind of heart attack I had, they call it the widow maker; most people don't survive," he told me last week during an interview.
Few people in the Washington metropolitan region even knew about Johnson's near-death experience more than a decade ago, although he's a local celebrity. Truth be told, he's something of an institution. Any major news event that has occurred in the city over the past 30 years, Johnson was there: The Hanafi Muslim takeover of city hall; Marion Barry's arrest and return; the arrival of the financial control board and the stunning election as mayor of Anthony A. Williams -- a nerdy, bow-tie-wearing, bean counter -- over three sitting D.C. Council members.
Despite his celebrity, Johnson's private life has been, well, private. Who knew, for example, of his alcohol abuse, which sent him racing many evenings up Rockville Pike to receive treatment and therapy? Not even he knew until shortly before his heart attack that the man he believed to be his father really wasn't.
Sharing those stories was difficult, he said. But it was important. Most people focus on medical issues associated with heart disease. "[But] I wanted to talk about the human and emotional sides because that's where I felt I was on my own," Johnson said.
Despite the trauma and the months of recovery, he called his attack the "best thing that happened to me. It got me off the treadmill and made me reassess everything in my life."
Doing what journalists usually do, he reached out to others. For his book, he interviewed an array of people -- Boston lawyer Evan Kushner, Baltimore resident Erin Peiffer and District clergyman the Rev. James Love to name a few.
He said he wanted to teach about how a heart attack can change a person's life. But, he also wanted to help people learn how to "get on with the rest of your life."
Even if he helps only one person avoid a heart attack or recover from one, Johnson should be saluted for his effort. He said getting the word out may be his biggest assignment ever. He may be right. But, if past is prologue, he no doubt will succeed.
Jonetta Rose Barras, host of WPFW's "D.C. Politics with Jonetta," can be reached at Rosebook1@aol.com.