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Gene Johnson: All Heart

by Staff Writer / Minnesota Wild


 Gene Johnson of New Brighton has a new mission in life, educating people on the benefits of Automatic External Defibrillators (AED).
Of the 18,568 fans expected to fill the Xcel Energy Center for Tuesday’s hockey game between the Minnesota Wild and the Los Angeles Kings, none will be more thankful to be there than 66-year-old Gene Johnson.

Johnson isn’t realizing a lifelong dream of attending a professional hockey game. It’s not because the retired fifth grade teacher has the honor of shouting “Let’s Play Hockey!” from the stage high above the ice surface. It’s not because he’s getting a free dinner out of the deal.

Johnson, an admitted casual fan, is thrilled to be the guest of honor tonight because he knows how lucky he is to be alive, let alone attending a Wild game. Four years ago, Johnson nearly died on his front lawn before his wife’s eyes. He was minutes away from never again seeing his wife, his children, or his grandchildren.

Thanks to some fast-acting individuals and a device known as an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED), Johnson is able to attend a Wild game, or go on a walk, or play with his grandchildren, or serve as a spokesman for Medtronic, a leading manufacturer of AED defibrillators.

On the afternoon of September 11, 2002, Johnson’s daughter Stacey, who lives away from home, awoke from a nap, and had an overwhelming urge to call home and check on her parents. Her mother and Gene’s wife, Yvonne, answered the phone. She walked through the house to the back porch to find Gene, who was watering some freshly laid sod in the backyard of his New Brighton home.

When she peered out the window, she saw Gene falling to the ground, while the hose flailed away on the lawn. She immediately called 911, and fortunately, a nearby squad car was on the scene within a few minutes.

Dan Olson, one of the police officers that arrived on the scene was equipped with the only AED device in the city of New Brighton at that time. It turns out that Olson was a fifth grade student of Johnson’s in 1988.

“It just freaked me,” exclaimed Johnson. “I discovered it a few months later, and we finally had a get together at a training session at the RiverCentre. It was very emotional when the two of us got together.”

Johnson also later learned that he did not have a heart attack. His heart was in cardiac arrest.

“Cardiac arrest is when the heart’s electrical system abruptly stops,” he clarified. “It can strike anyone at anytime, although I didn’t know that then. I was a fairly healthy man.”

Gene’s situation was touch-and-go at Unity hospital, where paramedics rushed him. His heart was running, but it was far from stable. Gene was unconscious the entire time. Days later, it was determined that he would need to undergo a quadruple bypass.

Johnson survived, putting him in the minority of people who experience a cardiac arrest. He considers himself a three-year-old, who has been on the planet for 66 years.

 Johnson’s role as Medtronic spokesman let to honors such as meeting Governor Tim Pawlenty, and shouting "Let’s Play Hockey," to kick off tonight’s game vs. the L.A. Kings. 
“I don’t know if I want to go back to the old Gene,” he said. “This new Gene has a new mission as an advocate for awareness and training. This sort of thing happens in the United States to about 45 people every hour, and only about five percent make it.”

Gene’s mission is to educate people on what an AED is, and to teach people how to use them.

An AED is much different than what many people envision. It is not the “paddle contraption” that we see in the movies where a paramedic will shout “Clear!” before jolting the patient in the chest.

An AED is much smaller, and anyone can use it in the case of an emergency.

“It can’t shock you or kill you if you have a healthy heart,” said Johnson. “It won’t work with a healthy heart, and it won’t work with a dead person. I want to assure people not to be afraid to use them. They won’t harm anybody. If the people who helped me would have just stood around and screamed, I wouldn’t have made it.””

With the help of Medtronic, Johnson has become a spokesperson intent on making AED devices available in airports, health clubs, schools and pretty much any other public area. Along with the New Brighton Safety Commission, Gene and his neighbors organized the "Have A Heart Walk" to raise funds for the city to buy more defibrillators.

After the walk raised more than $6,000, organizations like the New Brighton - Mounds View Rotary, the Twin Cities North Chamber, the New Brighton Lions and others became involved in the fundraising effort. The Medtronic Foundation stepped up with a $10,000 grant to help train citizens to use the AEDs.

Johnson will continue to preach the AED gospel until he drops, and he is certain that won’t be for a very long time. He’s too busy anyway, with the American Heart Association Heart Walk coming up on February 25th, as well as a fundraiser that same day at the Mall of America. He’ll also continue to visit with patients to help them through the process that he lived through.

Until then, he’ll take in the Wild/Kings game, and talk to anyone who wants to listen about the benefits of an AED. He’s just thankful he’ll get the chance.

For more information on available grants, visit and click on “Contact Us.”

Click here to read more about the Wild’s partnership with Medtronic.

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