11/17/05 — WATCH nurse practitioner honored

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WATCH nurse practitioner honored

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on November 17, 2005 1:46 PM

Kathy Johnson, a nurse practitioner with the WATCH mobile unit, was recently selected to receive the Carrington Award for Community Service by the Alumni Association of Carolina School of Nursing.

At the awards program, she was described as someone who "exemplifies what nursing professionals in rural North Carolina strive to accomplish."

Ms. Johnson said she was pleased by the recognition but added that she is only doing her job.

Nurse practitioners are guided by a desire to serve areas where medical service is often hard to obtain, she said.

"I feel like I have tried to do what I was taught to do," she said.

Ms. Johnson grew up in Iowa, moving to North Carolina 33 years ago to work in Hot Springs. After about six months, she said, she was sent to Chapel Hill for further training. She graduated from the family nurse practitioner program in 1973.

Most of her experience initially was in rural communities, but for a time she worked at the state Office of Rural Health.

Her desire to return to seeing patients coincided with a request from a new program in Wayne County that was seeking help in attracting a nurse practitioner. The program was Wayne Action Teams for Community Health, now known as WATCH.

Ms. Johnson was among those from the state office invited to see the mobile clinic set up by Dr. Clark Gaither, the medical director for WATCH, and Sissy Lee-Elmore, the organization's executive director.

Something during the visit struck a chord with her.

"We kind of kidded on the trip back," she recalled. "But when I got back in my car and got ready to leave, I thought, 'That's my job. It's me.'"

She said she promptly called Mrs. Lee-Elmore and soon secured the job she has now held for more than five years.

"We don't have a nurse or a lab technician," she said. "We have to do so much of it ourselves. But I love seeing patients that are under-served.

"They're genuine; they're grateful. A lot of them have not had much care for awhile."

They are, in fact, her target audience.

"It feels like it's important and needed," she said.

On an average day, she may see from 25 to 45 patients. Cases range from sore throats and colds to those occasions where cancer has been ultimately diagnosed and patients have gone on to receive necessary life-saving treatments. Diabetes is on the rise and she said there is a lot of work toward preventing strokes and heart attacks.

"I like giving job physicals so someone can get a job," she noted. "Just knowing that it's so needed has been rewarding."

She said she appreciates all the volunteers she gets to work with every day, as well as the growing support that has come since the program's inception.

"I'm grateful that Dr. Gaither had the vision and that the community people have been involved from the beginning," she said. "I think we have gained the respect of the medical community. More physicians help on the truck and take our referrals and I'm really grateful for that."

With an estimated 6,900 patients currently on file, she said she is thankful to provide not only medical services but to help meet some of the unique needs that are out there.

Those who recognized from the beginning that hiring Ms. Johnson to work with the mobile clinic was a good match continue to sing her praises.

Mrs. Lee-Elmore said, "We've always known Kathy was a special person and we're fortunate that she works with WATCH. She has taken the initiative to expand the program to care for more of our county's uninsured.

"She is a compassionate and thoughtful caregiver and the patients and staff all love her."

Gaither said while the original idea has been attributed to him, it took the concentrated efforts of many people, crediting the WATCH board, the hospital, and the grant-writing abilities of Mrs. Lee-Elmore.

"The glue that really holds this whole operation together is Kathy," he said. "There's no way this program would have been so successful as it's been.

"She's a little dynamo. I have never seen anyone more energetic and enthusiastic. Quite frankly, we have to make her take time off; she loves what she does."

Gaither said there are plans to talk to state lawmakers about the possibility of replicating the WATCH model in other counties.