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Articles / 2008

Two county couples married for more than 50 years have cardiac surgery within past year
Dear hearts

By Kim Lamb Gregory
Ventura County Star
Sunday, February 10, 2008

Four hearts belonging to two couples are stronger this Valentine's Day following his 'n' hers heart surgery.

Both Ventura County couples have been married more than 50 years. The two cardiovascular surgeons who operated could not remember ever performing surgery on a married couple within the same year.

"I've operated on a father and son within the same week, but never a couple. Not within the same year," said Community Memorial Hospital cardiovascular surgeon Lamar Bushnell, who operated on the two wives.

Cardiovascular surgeon Dominic Tedesco, who shares a practice with Bushnell, operated on the husbands.

Married 62 years, Adam and Margaret Woznicki of Camarillo had heart surgery within five months of each other. Both are now 81. Ray and Pat Johnson both had heart surgery in December 2007. Ray, 82, and Pat, 76, have been married 56 years.

When doing the surgery, which can take up to eight hours, Bushnell said he is very aware when he is operating on a spouse who is half of a long and devoted marriage. He feels responsible to the spouse who is not on the operating table, and to all of the patient's children and grandchildren.

"You really have to focus intently on being perfect in the technical aspect (of the surgery)," said Bushnell. "But you're also very aware that the outcome is important not just to the patient but to so many other people."

Among the extended family members worrying in the waiting room when Adam underwent his surgery on March 17, 2007, was Adam and Margaret's youngest daughter, Dot Damon, who works as a nurse. Damon, who declined to give her age, said that her professional knowledge actually made her more rather than less anxious.

"It's more frightening because you know what the outcome could be," said Damon, of Camarillo.

But when she started thinking about her father's life, and how he and her mother managed to find love in otherwise grim circumstances, a sense of calm came over her.

"I thought: He made it through all of that. He's going to make it through this,'" Dot said.

Captured hearts

Adam and Margaret were growing up in different rural areas of central Poland when World War II broke out.

Both were 16 years old in 1941 when the Nazis went to their individual villages, separated the teens from their families and forced them onto trains bound for Germany.

Margaret's parents had already been taken, as had three of her four siblings. She knew the Nazis could come for her.

"My brother was first. Taken to Germany. Then my sister," said Margaret, whose Polish lilt is still evident in her voice. "They took my little sister to France. They (the Nazis) came to our house and gave them (her parents) 45 minutes to pack."

Adam was terrified but also not surprised. German men were off serving the Third Reich, so Polish citizens were forced into doing the jobs the German men had left behind. Adam was ordered to work on a German farm. Margaret worked in a vineyard.

The teens did not meet until years later, when the war ended and both were taken to displaced persons camps in Germany in 1945. They were there with thousands of others who had no homes, and no idea if their families were dead or alive.

During the five years Margaret and Adam spent in the camp, they lived in barracks, apartments, factories or whatever space the British and American liberators could arrange for them until they could immigrate somewhere like Australia or the U.S.

"Every couple of months, they ship us somewhere else," Margaret said, "10 different camps around Germany."

Shortly after she arrived in the camp, then 19-year-old Margaret spotted a man about her age with a thicket of wavy, black hair.

"That's why I married him," Margaret said. "He was (a) very handsome guy."

He, too, had noticed her.

"I thought she was (a) German girl," said Adam, whose speech also is still accented with his native Polish.

Alone, with no families, among thousands of strangers, Adam and Margaret courted and fell in love.

Neither can remember who proposed to the other after a few months, just that they married eight months after they met, on Sept. 29, 1945. They loved each other, and they had practical reasons for making it official.

"We decided two could survive better than one," Margaret said.

They married in the camp in an airplane hangar. Four other couples were married at the same time by a priest who was also there as a displaced person. An accordion player serenaded them all.

There were just a handful of dresses for thousands of women, so if somebody got married while in the camp, they wore one of the dresses. The other brides wore pink or blue street dresses, Margaret said. Margaret was able to borrow the single white wedding gown circulating the camp.

"That dress went from house to house to house," said Margaret, referring to the little homes the refugees created from their surroundings.

Their first daughter, Diane, was born while they were still in the camp. In 1950, they finally were able to get an American sponsor to bring the little family to the U.S.

A friend in the camp had an aunt in New Jersey willing to sponsor the Woznickis, so in November 1950, the family set sail for America with all of their belongings in a single suitcase.

In sickness and in health

After settling in Newark, Adam got a job as a toolmaker, then attended night school for two years so he could advance to make machines, which he did for the next 37 years. Adam brought in $40 a week and Margaret made $20 as a seamstress in a factory.

The couple held off having a second child because it had been so hard immigrating with just one daughter. Finally, 16 years after Diane was born, Dot came into the world.

The couple retired to Camarillo in 1994 so they could be closer to their daughters. Margaret developed Type II diabetes and high blood pressure, but medication kept both under control. Adam had a knee replacement and a hernia repaired but was otherwise healthy as he entered his 80s.
The picture shows the heart valves of Margaret Woznicki before her surgery. Her husband, Adam, also had heart surgery at Community Memorial Hospital.

The picture shows the heart valves of Margaret Woznicki before her surgery. Her husband, Adam, also had heart surgery at Community Memorial Hospital.
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Then, in March of 2007, he noticed some odd symptoms.

"I was feeling tired. I would go for a walk and have shortness of breath. I felt chest pain," Adam said.

A visit to his doctor resulted in his being hospitalized immediately. A stress test revealed he had four blockages in the arteries around his heart and would need a heart bypass operation.

The man whose life was intertwined with hers for more than 60 years was undergoing major surgery. Margaret tried to stay calm, but she was terrified. She prayed. She worried.

"You don't know what to do with yourself," Margaret said. "You're walking around."

Her blood pressure, which had been under control, skyrocketed. Adam came home, but as the months passed, Margaret's blood pressure remained high.

Finally, in August, tests revealed that she, too, had blockages in two coronary arteries and would need the same surgery as her husband. On Aug. 6, Dr. Tedesco performed heart bypass surgery. Adam, who had been worried about leaving his wife alone, now worried that she would leave him.

"One of us has to go first. Me or her," Adam said. "I thought this was the end."

A California love story

Ray and Patricia Johnson vowed "till death do us part" on June 17, 1951, in a little chapel in Inglewood, but they didn't dwell on the "death" part. After all, Ray was 26 and Pat was 18.

Ray was all dressed up in his best suit, and Pat was in a smart, dove gray suit with lavender accessories. They had just tied the knot and their lives stretched ahead of them. Life was good.

The pair had met several months earlier while both were attending Pepperdine University on scholarships. Ray was studying to be a physical education teacher, and Pat was aiming to be a preschool teacher.

Ray and a pal used to park in front of the school so Ray could get a glimpse of Pat walking by with a schoolmate.

Ray finally asked Pat out to a football game, and the romance began. About three months later, he proposed.

"He gave me his fraternity pin," Pat said. "We were sitting in his car. He said, You will marry me, won't you?'"

"It was a 1940 Ford coupe," Ray said. "Fanciest car in town."

The pair married and eventually settled in Garden Grove, where Ray spent 35 years as a physical education teacher and high school coach. Pat taught preschool for 24 years and gave birth to the couple's three children: Marge, now 55; David, now 52; and Janet, now 42.

A crisis of the heart

The couple retired to Ojai in 1991. Both continued to stay active.

Pat, who had never been overweight in her life, walked regularly. She had a pesky heart valve irregularity that would have to be corrected at some point, but it was not an immediate problem.

Ray exercised every morning, was an avid fly fisherman and regularly rode his bike up to the Casitas Springs McDonald's to have coffee with buddies.

He was on such a bike ride about two months ago when he suddenly ran out of steam. He had to dismount from the bike and rest.

"I rode up part way and had to put my head down on the seat," Ray said.

It happened again a few days later, so he decided to consult his doctor. A stress test revealed that some of Ray's coronary arteries were blocked, and Dr. Bushnell scheduled a bypass operation on Dec. 3.

Pat was worried as Ray had suffered an autoimmune disease involving his kidneys seven years earlier. He was still in the hospital when Pat realized she was feeling a lot of tightness in her chest. It was probably that heart valve. Perhaps it would need surgery sooner rather than later, she thought.

She visited her heart doctor in Ojai.

"I said, My husband's across the street in the hospital,'" Pat said. "He said, If things get bad, I'll just double-deck you.'"

It came on so that I was going to have it sooner than I thought," Pat said.

Ray had been home just a few days when things did get bad. Pat was preparing to leave to pick up a few Christmas gifts when the pain came back.

"I said, The tightness is back, and it's not going away,'" Pat remembered. "Ray said, I'll call the doctor.' I said, No, call 911.'"

Pat was rushed to Ojai Valley Community Hospital, then transferred to Community Memorial in Ventura, where she underwent a valve replacement operation and had a coronary bypass operation on Dec. 19.

Ray, who was trying to recover himself, was grateful for the help of his daughters, who live in Ventura County. (Their son lives in Colorado.) But he worried, and he felt low. "I think I went into a depression," Ray said. "We men don't like it when our wives don't feel good."

A healthy lifestyle

The moments when their spouses were on the operating tables were tense, but the Johnsons and the Woznickis are all recovered and doing well.

"He got irritated because I got better faster than he did," Pat said with a grin.

The couples didn't meet until they got together for the Star photo shoot — which also gave them a chance to thank their surgeons again for shepherding them through four marathon operations.

Bushnell said that outcomes like this are what make his job worthwhile.

"It carries you through the grueling times," he said. "It reminds you of the reason you do this."

It is definitely an intricately choreographed surgery. The operation, Bushnell said, takes a team of as many as 10, who are all in the operating room at the same time. "It's like a concert," he said. "Everything has to go perfect — especially when you're dealing with an octogenarian."

There can be no breaks during the three-to-eight-hour surgeries, not even to go to the bathroom.

"The adrenaline is so pumped, you don't have to (use the bathroom)," Bushnell said. "You don't drink a whole lot of liquids before surgery. No coffee. Besides, you don't want any hand tremors. No lattes in the OR."

Bushnell said that 14 years ago, when he was finishing his training, he rarely got a call to operate on an octogenarian, but now, people are living longer, so surgery on older seniors is becoming more commonplace. Of the 200 or so cardiac patients he and Tedesco operate on each year, about 20 percent are at least 80, he said.

Often, many have lived healthy lifestyles, such as Ray, and don't understand why they have developed heart problems.

"People say: How can this be? I've never smoked. I've taken care of myself,'" Bushnell said. "And I tell them, That's how you got to be 82 years old with this disease and not 62.'"

During February, which is American Heart Month, Bushnell wants to stress that advanced age is, in itself, a risk factor for heart disease, so it's important to take care of your heart.

If surgery is necessary, Bushnell said, the technology is so advanced, and the surgery is so common, that the outcome is often very good, giving people like the Johnsons and the Woznickis a chance to further enjoy the hearts they gave to one another more than half a century ago.

Heartfelt facts

Signs of a heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
  • Minutes matter. Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, don't wait more than five minutes to dial 911.

Especially for women:

  • Heart disease is now the No. 1 killer of American women, killing one in four women.
  • As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Tips to maintaining a healthy heart:

  • Stop smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Talk to your doctor.

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