Local heart transplant survivor to speak at Go Red for Women luncheon
It’s no wonder his team of doctors in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles
call Thomas Johansen a “poster patient”.
He underwent a heart transplant at UCLA Medical Center in early
November 2017, and by Christmas 2017, he was celebrating the holidays
with his family who had come from Denmark.
“I was even able to dance at a New Year’s Eve party,” said Mr.
Johansen, 49, a real estate agent with Village Properties who is back
to his favorite sport of bicycling, too. “I just did 27 miles. In
August 2018, I competed in cycling in the Transplant Games of America
in Salt Lake City.”
Mr. Johansen, who was born and grew up in Sor┐, Denmark, will share
his experience with the transplant procedure when he speaks at the Go
Red for Women luncheon and program at noon Friday at the Hilton Santa
Barbara Beachfront Resort, 633 E. Cabrillo Blvd. The event is
sponsored by the American Heart Association to raise awareness about
For many patients like Mr. Johansen, the cardiac nurses are quite
literally their lifeline, and this year five cardiac nurses from
Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital and one from Santa Ynez Valley Cottage
Hospital will be honored at the luncheon. Nominated by their peers
and the AHA, they are Marsha Griggs, Sharon Morley, Zaida Pascual,
Gary Tartar, Sue Weingartner and Samantha Yim.
Mr. Johansen, a Santa Barbara resident since 1995, told the News-
Press his heart problems began in the fall of 2013 when he began
“feeling wheezy” during one of his long bike rides, which averaged
35 miles three times a week.
“The doctors diagnosed it as asthma, but several months later, I was
driving my dream car, a BMW sports model, that I had just purchased
in Los Angeles and felt pressure in my chest. I drove right to my
doctor, who referred me to a cardiologist. I was diagnosed with
cardiomyopathy,” said Mr. Johansen.
“I had no clue what it was but soon learned that cardiomyopathy is a
disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for your heart to
pump blood to the rest of your body.”
For an active healthy man, he contemplated what a diagnosis like this
meant for the future.
“I fought the disease for five years and continued to live a full
life selling real estate, biking and hiking. I went on a plant-based
diet and felt great,” Mr. Johansen said.
Then, in April 2017, he woke up one morning with what he found out
later were ventricular attacks.
“My heart was racing, beating very fast. I was really scared. I took
deep breaths on the side of the bed. I called my doctor who told me
to go to the emergency department at Cottage Hospital. I heard all
the alarms. I spent two days in ICU and five days in the hospital,”
recalled Mr. Johansen.
Two months later, he was told he had to get on the heart transplant
list at UCLA Medical Center.
“First, I had to meet with 50 health professionals there č doctors,
social workers, psychiatrists č to determine my eligibility, which
took two weeks. It was quite an ordeal, but I was accepted and told I
was No. 34 on the list, which could take two to four years before I
could get a new heart,” Mr. Johansen said.
His biggest concern was that in order to move up the list, his
condition had to get even worse.
“So I kept on living, socializing with friends and working to keep
myself busy. I knew I had to get worse. I just hoped I wouldn’t die
doing it,” he said.
That almost happened in September 2017 when he suffered 72
ventricular attacks, and his heart stopped beating. Saved by a
defibrillator and now in critical condition, he was moved up to No. 4
and admitted to UCLA Medical Center to wait.
“No. 4 meant that I was also Status 1 and had to be tethered to my
bed by the Swan catheter to be sure that I was transplant-ready. It
was inserted in the main artery in my neck. I couldn’t shower. I
couldn’t go to the bathroom. The catheter had to be changed every
seven days to the other side. There was no anesthesia. It was rough.
This was the lowest point. I made plans for the future to speak about
this and help others,” said Mr. Johansen.
On Nov. 5, 2017, a donor was found for him.
“I discovered later that hearts were available three weeks earlier,
but the doctors didn’t feel they were strong enough for me,” said
His surgery lasted three hours, and when it was finished, his new
heart was pumping just fine. He doesn’t know who the donor is, and
the family doesn’t know who he is.
“A year after surgery, I was allowed to write an anonymous letter,
that had to be screened by the UCLA staff, to the family. I have the
letter ready to go, but haven’t sent it yet. I want it to be
absolutely perfect. My highest hope is that I can meet the family and
thank them in person,” said Mr. Johansen.
He added: “Now, when I go back to UCLA for checkups, I like to
mentor patients who are waiting for organ transplants, mostly hearts.
I’m back to working, biking and hiking. I tell them whatever their
passion is, do it now.
“I have a full life. I feel a responsibility that this heart is a
gift to be shared, and I’m thankful to the Heart Association for all