An aorta repair helps return a Swansea man to his active life

Robert Johnson was operating a forklift while volunteering for We Share Hope in January 2022 when he felt pain in his chest and back, and had difficulty breathing.

Thinking he was having a heart attack, the Swansea resident asked his operations manager to call 911 and soon found himself in the intensive care unit (ICU). He was diagnosed with a dissection near the aortic arch, a potentially life-threatening condition that involves a tear in the inner layer of the aorta that allows blood to pour between the artery’s inner and middle layers, creating a bulge and weakening the aortic wall.

He was released after five days in the ICU, but images taken later at Charlton Memorial Hospital revealed renewed bleeding, as well as blood clots in his lungs and left leg, and he spent another three days in the hospital.

His Southcoast Health cardiologist, Dr. Mark Desnoyers, recommended surgery, and his wife, Janette, a retired registered nurse with 35 years of experience, agreed.

Robert was referred to Dr. Richard Pin, a vascular surgeon at Southcoast Health’s Heart and Vascular Center, who reviewed the images and discovered a blockage in the artery going to Johnson’s left arm. He performed an operation at St. Luke’s Hospital to open the blockage in April of 2022. Two weeks later, Dr. Pin repaired the aortic dissection by implanting a stent. Then in July, Robert underwent additional surgery to repair two hernias.

“Those were the only surgeries I’ve had in my life,” said Robert, the father of two and grandfather of four.

The worst part of the ordeal, he said, were the months of forced rest and idleness. Reading, word searches, and Sudoku could not replace the active life he’d enjoyed before surgery.

“I’m not used to sitting around,” he said.

Robert has kept busy volunteering since he retired in 2010 as a route salesman for Frito Lay. He was thrilled in August when he was cleared for normal activity and could return to his forklift at We Share Hope. Now, he spends at least four days a week volunteering at the East Providence food recovery organization, transferring pallets of food donated by companies from trailers to the warehouse. The organization then distributes the food to more than 60 charities in Rhode Island.

He also can be found one day a week supervising home building or renovation for South County RI Habitat for Humanity, using the construction skills he learned from his father. In addition to his volunteer activities, he has resumed his regular bike riding and roller blading.

“I can’t say enough good about the staff at St. Luke’s and Charlton Memorial, and Dr. Pin,” he said. “He’s above and beyond. He explained everything and put my wife and me at ease. Now I’m back to normal.”