MINNEAPOLIS — February is American Heart Month, and heart disease remains the number one killer of Americans. For this Minnesota couple, discovering a serious heart problem gave them purpose.
Pete and Amy Johnson have a passion for performing.
“We actually dated back in the ’80s and then reconnected,” recalled Amy Johnson.
But a few years into their marriage, the fun-loving couple got the scare of their lives.
“It was a nurse telling me that I had a 5 cm aortic aneurysm and that my aortic valve, the main heart valve, had something called stenosis,” said Pete Johnson.
The diagnosis was like a gut punch. Pete had a history of heart murmurs but no physical symptoms, and yet, he would need open-heart surgery.
“I looked it up, and when I read what it was, the first thing you find is the doom and gloom,” said Amy. “My heart kind of skipped a beat.”
The aortic valve allows blood to flow from the left ventricle to the aorta. Healthy leaflets open and close the valve during the heartbeat, but diseased valves can cause them not to fully open or close.
Pete’s doctor described it to him as "putting a thumb over a garden hose."
“The blood shoots a little faster through it,” says Pete. “And that is a probable cause of the aneurysm on the other end because the blood’s going through there real quick.”
Symptoms can include shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, dizziness or fainting, and irregular heartbeat.
For the Johnson family, the health scare soon turned into a mission to inform others about aortic valve disease and aneurysms.
They started Rock from the Heart, a nonprofit focused on supporting families from diagnosis through recovery.
“Let's do something through music and try and promote some heart things so people my age start thinking about it,” said Pete about his mission.
Each February, during American Heart Month, the organization hosts an annual symposium along with their concert performances. Their goal is to stress early detection and knowing what to do are keys to a good outcome.
“Advocate for your health,” said Amy. “If a doctor hears a heart murmur and calls it 'innocent,' ask the question ‘well, is it? Or could it be something we should possibly look at or monitor closer?’”
Dr. Kevin Harris is a cardiologist at the Minneapolis Heart Institute and speaks at the annual symposium.
“I think it's important that you discover it upfront,” said Dr. Harris. “Worst case scenario, someone's going along carrying on their life and they have the dilated aorta, and they don't know about it.”
This year’s program will be virtual, but the couple hope to reach more people online, and next year, they plan to expand.
“To be able to take that two-day model of education and rock and roll across the country is the ultimate goal,” said Amy.
Their hope is to make sure everyone takes their advice to heart.