FORT PICKETT, Va. — Last summer, on one of the final days of annual training for the 1710th Transportation Company, Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Johnson collapsed on the drill floor of the readiness center in Emporia, Virginia. Three Soldiers – Sgt. 1st Class Michelle Homer, Sgt. Christina So and Sgt. Gella Johnson – administered CPR for approximately six minutes before Johnson regained consciousness.
“If I’d been anywhere else, I probably would never have made it,” Johnson said.
Less than a week after his collapse, on Aug. 2, 2018, doctors cracked open Johnson’s chest and repaired his heart. By October, he was back at work, back with his unit and a few months after that, on March 10, 2019, Johnson was standing in formation when Homer, So and Johnson were recognized for their life-saving efforts.
“I’m happy for them,” Johnson said. “I’m glad to see them get recognized and I’m glad to still be here, to still be able to put on the uniform.”
Johnson doesn’t remember much from that day, just that he was playing basketball with his Soldiers right before lunch. The area they were in was small, he said, they weren’t even running, but he felt like he could breathe.
“Y’all hang on a second, let me catch my breath,” he said.
A few feet away, So was watching. Johnson just didn’t look right, she said, so she kept her eye on him.
“The next thing I knew, he was collapsing,” So said. She was just a few feet away when it happened and immediately ran toward Johnson, trying to catch him before he fell to prevent further injury. “Then he was unconscious,” she said.
So tried to get Johnson to respond. She’s CPR and first aid certified, has even worked as a CPR instructor, so she knew what to do. She tried talking to him, she rubbed her knuckles along his sternum, tried to get a response, but nothing worked.
“His eyes were fixed wide open, he wasn’t breathing and his whole torso started turning white and his neck, up to his ears, started turning blue,” Homer said. She’d just been through Combat Lifesaver Training, she knew what to do, too, so she and So started CPR.
“We kept going, rotation after rotation,” Homer said. “I was giving the breaths and she was doing the compressions.” Minutes in, So started to tire and Sgt. Gella Johnson jumped in for a few rounds.
“Everyone was counting out loud, just 1, 2, 3,” Homer said. “We had a rhythm.”
So swapped with Johnson and started doing chest compressions again.
“That fresh push, just all of a sudden, the color came back,” Homer said.
After six minutes of chest compressions and rescue breaths, Johnson started breathing again, his rescuers found a pulse and he woke up.
At first, Johnson didn’t know what was going on, why all these people were standing around him. He wanted to stand up, to get back to work, to know if he’d lost the basketball game he’d been playing.
Johnson went first to the emergency room in Emporia, then to the hospital in Petersburg and then to MCV in Richmond. He was diagnosed with a bicuspid aortic valve. The aortic valve regulates the flow of blood from the heart into the aorta and a normal aortic valve has three leaflets, but Johnson’s only had two. He had deployed three times, spent years in the military and never had a single heart issue before that day.
Homer said she and a few of the other Soldiers went to see Johnson in the hospital a few days later and the doctors there told her 99% of people don’t come back from a cardiac event like that.
“Every doctor I saw said I should have never got up, that based on the condition that I had and what happened, that they never should have been able to revive me with regular CPR,” said Johnson, who has made some changes since the summer. “I had to quit smoking, I’ve changed my whole diet, I started going back to church like I should,” he said. “It definitely changed my outlook.
At the awards ceremony, So and Homer were awarded Army Commendation Medals while Sgt. Gella Johnson received a Virginia National Guard Commendation Medal.
“The Soldier was dead and they brought him back to life,” said Command Sgt. Maj. James Shepard, command sergeant major for the 1030th Transportation Battalion, 329th Regional Support Group. “Because of them, he was able to go back to his family.”
Both Homer and So stressed the importance of learning basic first aid and CPR.
“I feel like everyone should try to learn CPR, at least the compressions and breath part,” So said. “You can save a life.”