COMPILED BY KIMBERLY D. COLLINS, TIMES WRITER
SOUTH FLORIDA – In January of 2016 Frederick Johnson received the call of a lifetime. After years of heart issues, and subsequent kidney issues, he would finally receive a new heart AND a new kidney! How has life changed since the transplants? Where is he now and what has he been up to?
Born in Sanford, Florida in 1950 “Freddy James” as he is affectionately known, was 5 years old when his mother Elizabeth married Calvin Collins, Sr. The family later relocated to Penn Yan, NY where he graduated from Penn Yan Academy in 1969. Following graduation, Johnson went through basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas before attending the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
It was during a physical in 1969 that he was first diagnosed with a heart murmur. “They told me that at some point in my life that I would have to have major heart surgery,” said Johnson. After being honorably discharged from the Air Force, he decided to attend Kings College in Wilkes – Barre, Pennsylvania for two years before transferring to a local college in Penn Yan for another semester. After college, he began working at the Eastman Kodak Company where he would eventually retire.
In 2009, Frederick began to have real concerns about his health which resulted in him having heart replacement surgery. Not too long after, he had a heart attack in 2011. After no change in his condition, he was transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital for further treatment. Johnson came out of shock two weeks later but was experiencing atrophy, so he was treated and then released to a rehab center. It was during his 8 weeks in the rehab center where he learned to walk again.
Once he returned to his Veteran’s Affairs (VA) doctor, a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) was implanted. He was placed on the organ transplant list in February of 2013.
The LVAD brought its own set of issues. First, it ran on batteries so that was always a concern. Frederick was very weak during this time and would often suffer from fainting spells and other medical issues. In addition, his prescribed medications caused problems with his kidneys – which resulted in the need for a new kidney as well.
The call he had been waiting on finally came from Jackson Memorial at 2am one morning. On January 9th and 10th of 2016, Frederick Johnson received his new heart and kidney! Dr. Brossi performed the heart transplant and Dr. Chin performed the kidney.
“He’s a very strong man, so one of the things that really helped me to get through the whole ordeal was that his faith never wavered,” said his wife, Sharon Johnson. “[this situation] certainly changed my view of organ donation. After this whole ordeal, and to see the importance of that, I would be a strong advocate for it.”
Although medical professionals are not legally able to disclose the donor’s identity, the doctors did reveal that both organs came from the same donor, and the person was 27 years old.
“If anybody has the opportunity to be an organ donor, they should step up, especially in the Black community. People of color, in general they have a hard time donating organs,” said Johnson. “This transplant has been very [beneficial] to me. Without it, I wouldn’t be here,” he added. “I think organ donation is priority one. When you go to the department of motor vehicles, check the box to become an organ donor because, look at me, it would be really worth it to someone in need of an organ.”
As with many major surgeries, there were a few complications. Fluid built up around his kidney which resulted in the implantation of an interventional radiology draining device, which he wore from March to August of 2016. Then there were various infections that required Frederick to carry an antibiotic dispensing device at all times for 7-8 weeks.
“I admire his strength and courage for what he went through. I never really believed in organ donation until this situation happened with my brother,” said his brother Walter.
Today, Frederick is doing very well. He and his wife Sharon relocated from South Florida to Rochester, NY in December of 2021, to be closer to their 7 grandchildren and their great-grandson. They have even been back to Central Florida to visit with family since the move.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) made Johnson’s medical transition seamless, and continues to be a major part of his care. Anything that the VA cannot handle is taken care of by his team at the University of Rochester where his Transplant Cardiologist is based. Staying on top of all of his appointments and setting up referrals for anything else that he might need has been a monumental key in Johnson continuing to thrive since relocating back to New York. “From the time I stepped in the door, they have been nothing short of amazing,” he said.
When I caught up with Mr. Johnson recently to find out how he had been doing over the past year, he happily said, “I’ve been great! I really have nothing new to report – nothing has changed!” In this case, no news is definitely GOOD NEWS!!!
Frederick had previously stated that perhaps the biggest adjustment, post – transplant, had been the realization that he just can’t do all of the things that he used to do anymore. “At 71 years old, I would probably be starting to slow down some anyway, but this is even more than that would be,” he said. Now, 7 years later, he is living his best life! His days are spent fishing and golfing, and spending time with his family. And, he is so grateful.
One of the most important parts of getting through a difficult situation is having a strong and reliable support system. Johnson definitely has that. In addition to his wife Sharon, he has a very close friend that is a pastor whom he speaks to almost daily, his brothers Calvin and Walter, and his Aunt Chrissy in South Florida. Each of these people has played a very important role in Frederick’s life and they have been there to support him through it all.
“Fred has a strong belief in God and that must have been key to his successful recovery, as well as top notch medical care,” said his older brother Dr. Calvin Collins. “Fred is an intelligent man, a family man, and a faithful Christian. What he has achieved with his heart and kidney transplant has been miraculous and obviously God – oriented and directed.”
He still takes quite a few medications each day to help prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted organs, and to treat high blood pressure and diabetes.
Frederick has been happily married to his beautiful wife Sharon since 1991, and they are the proud parents of 4 children: Jerold Dixon, Denise Barber, James Weldon Johnson and Charleen Johnson; and they have seven beautiful grandchildren and one great grandson.
“Bottom line, the doctors didn’t expect me to make it so I’m blessed to say that I have a new heart inside of me and I’m actively doing the things that I’ve always wanted to do,” Johnson says. “I appreciate that God put me in a position to receive that heart.”