After years of struggling with autoimmune disorders, Georgia woman gets rare gift: a new heart

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CARTERSVILLE, Ga. - Maxine Johnson, of Cartersville, says she never imagined she would have a new heart, and a whole new life in front of her.

"Even now, I'm sitting back just thinking there's an organ that belonged to someone else in my body," Johnson says. "That's something you never, you can't fathom!"

At 53, married with a grown daughter, Johnson has a complicated medical history.

"I have three autoimmune diseases: lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and, Wegener's vascular disease," she says. "They call it GPA for short."

Dr. Wambui Machua, a Piedmont Healthcare rheumatologist, says, for Johnson, Wegener's, a type of vasculitis, or inflammation of the blood vessels, was the biggest challenge.

"We always treat the disease that's most severe and can cause, you know, the most symptoms," Machua says.

Treating autoimmune diseases

For years, Johnson had been getting IV infusions of methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug, to manage her symptoms.

It is not clear if the medication, or the blood vessel inflammation, a combination of the two, or something else, damaged her heart.

Dr. Machua believes it was likely vasculitis.

"With (her) lung involvement, that could definitely have affected the blood supply to the heart," Machua says. "And, then she ended up in heart failure."

By March 2020, on a 50th birthday trip with her family to Jamaica, Johnson could barely get out of bed.

Her heart function was in a free fall.

"My quality of life went all the way down there," Johnson remembers. "There were very minimal things that I would be able to do. But I can tell you this, I kept going."

Heart failure treatments

For 2 years, she went through heart failure treatment.

It was not helping.

Johnson's Piedmont cardiology team told her she needed a heart transplant.

"They never made it seem that it was hopeless," she says. "But they did inform me that the chances are not great because of me having these, they've never dealt with a case with, you know, someone with all these autoimmune diseases."

By July 2022, Johnson was hospitalized at Piedmont Atlanta, a balloon pump supporting her heart.

"I've been with Piedmont for 8 years. I've never had a patient like her that was that sick," Dr. Machua says.

"I said to myself, we need a miracle. We needed a miracle because she was that bad. I mean, it was either she gets a heart transplant, or that was it."

Heart transplant for Georgia mother

On Aug. 17, 2022, Johnson received a new heart.

"It was bittersweet," she says.

She thought about the family of her donor.

"I thought about them losing their loved one," Johnson says. "And, I really thought, like, who am I for the Lord to have someone to take care of their heart so that I can have it?"

Eighteen months later, back home in Bartow County, Johnson is thriving.

"It's affected my life tremendously in a great way," she says.

<div>Maxine Johnson, 53, received a heart transplant in August of 2022.</div>
Maxine Johnson, 53, received a heart transplant in August of 2022.

She is walking again, trying to get in shape.

And Johnson is back in the kitchen, cooking her favorite Jamaican dishes.

Her new heart, she says, has changed everything.

"It's allowed me to have a certain level of joy," she says. "I can't describe it more than that."

The anti-rejection medications seem to be keeping her vasculitis, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis at bay.

Maxine Johnson often thinks about her donor, the stranger who made all of this possible.

"The heart wasn't given in vain," Johnson says. "Their life wasn't in vain. And I'm just so grateful that they made the decision to share that with me. So, I want to just say thank you, I want to say thank you. And I am the reason for people checking that donor box. Even if you don't think it will ever happen. Check that box. Because you could save a life."

You can register your decision to donate life by visiting www.DonateLifeGeorgia.org, when you get or renew your driver's license or state identification card at the Georgia Department of Driver Services or when you obtain your hunting, fishing or trapping license through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.