Joe Johnson is All Heart

Joe Johnson (a mustached Black man in his 60s wearing a yellow shirt) working out on a machine in the Mordoh Fitness Center

(Published Jan 25, 2021)

To look at Joe Johnson, you might not guess that he had a heart transplant just over 11 years ago. The way he tells it, his exercise routine hasn’t even changed that much from before the transplant: “It’s just that I can do more reps now. I got stronger.”

Making sure that new heart stays healthy is why Joe has come to the J to work out 3-4 times a week, every week, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I talked to an infectious disease doctor, I talked to all my doctors,” he said. For him, the benefits to his health outweigh the risks.

Third Time’s the Charm

Joe joined the J almost 13 years ago, while waiting on the transplant. After a massive heart attack in the mid-2000s, he was given a defibrillator (to prevent abnormal heart rhythms), followed by a Left Ventricle Assist Device (LVAD) HeartMate II, a battery-operated machine that helps the weakened heart pump blood and improves quality of life until a heart transplant can occur (if the patient is eligible for one). So for a few years, Joe rehabbed as much as he could at both St. Vincent Hospital and the J, keeping his body as strong as possible in anticipation of his name being called.

Image of Joe Johnson walking on the treadmill
Joe’s typical workout consists of a mix of cardio and strength.

Joe’s heart transplant on November 9, 2009 was the third attempt — his body rejected the first two potential matches. That was a lot for Joe to undertake, not only physically but mentally. “You only have so many minutes or hours [for the transplant to be made], so you get the notification, ‘Get here, get prepped.’ Then a chaplain comes in, goes over the realization that this could be it.” To go through that three separate times is a feat in itself, just as much as the actual operation.

Joe credits the people around him for helping him through the process. “I want to thank the doctors at St. Vincent (especially the transplant team), my Progressive Baptist Church family and my immediate family. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

All These Things That I’ve Done

Since the transplant, Joe has been volunteering with Indiana Donor Network and Stephen Ministry, talking with other cardiovascular patients before they have their procedures because he knows firsthand what the process is like. It’s no surprise, then, that his next goal is to go through clinical pastoral education and become a chaplain, where he can use his past experience to really relate to people. It’s a natural progression from his previous career moves (10 years in the Chicago police force working specifically in public housing, then working for the Indianapolis Urban League in their College Readiness Program): in each position, Joe has strived to help others and provide them with the tools they need to thrive.

Why We Tell the Story

Ahead of February’s American Heart Month, Joe’s message to fellow JCC members about heart health is simple: “Eat right. Exercise. Watch your diet, your cholesterol. Have a general physical. If you have any issues with your heart, make sure you don’t wait. Make sure you seek medical attention right away. The earlier the detection, the better it is for you.”

Joe has continued to do the exercise portion at the J because of how much he likes the facility, the personnel and the family atmosphere (while he usually works out on his own, he’s watched what the J’s personal trainers do, and they occasionally come up and give him pointers). In fact, he said if he ever relocates somewhere warmer, he’ll make sure there’s a JCC.

Just like the average person might not realize that Joe has had a heart transplant, when discussing his time as a police officer he said, “Not a lot of people here know that. Some know, because they ask me.” There’s a lesson in that: people’s stories are so much more than they may appear to be at first glance. All you have to do is ask.