WATCH nurse will take new post
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 23, 2006 1:48 PM
Kathy Johnson recalls her first visit to Wayne County six years ago to meet with organizers of the Wayne Action Teams for Community Health, or WATCH.
At the time representing N.C. Office of Rural Health as a consultant, she said her role was to discuss the role a nurse practitioner plays.
By the time she drove away, she said she was so impressed with the mobile program's potential that she thought, "This is me."
"They had someone in mind but the person had no experience," she said. "I got in my car, called Sissy (Lee-Elmore, WATCH executive director), went through the interview and the rest is history."
Ms. Johnson said it just "seemed too obvious" for her to pass up the opportunity.
"I had written grants, started a migrant program in Granville County, just a lot of things in the past that prepared me for this," she said.
Through a survey that was done in 1997, officials had found that there were 20,000 people in Wayne County without insurance. The numbers are probably even higher now, she added.
"We knew we would probably never be able to meet the total need, but we now have 7,350-some patients and we have stopped taking new ones until we can get another provider," she said.
Friday will be Ms. Johnson's last day with the program, as she prepares to move to Iowa to spend more time with her 91-year-old mother.
It is a bittersweet departure, she said. Serving as nurse practitioner on the WATCH mobile unit since the beginning, she said the thing she will miss most are the patients, many who have become friends.
Reflecting on the past six years, she said the program "brings out the best and the worst in me. It stretches me to my limit but it's also so rewarding to take care of people who don't have any other way to get care.
"We have seen so many people be able to get jobs because they couldn't get a physical, a number of disabled people who didn't have documentation to prove that to get benefits."
The array of patient needs have ranged from controlling diabetes and thyroid conditions to chronic health problems, often because they couldn't receive care elsewhere, she said.
But the biggest challenge has been finding resources for those whose needs extend beyond what can be done on the mobile unit, she said. Funds are limited, she said, especially for things like medications.
"We have two people that contact drug companies to get free medications," she said. "Sometimes we send (patients) to other agencies that might be able to help."
Dr. Clark Gaither, medical director for WATCH, has also helped obtain free samples, Ms. Johnson said.
And there has been support from area physicians, she said. One evening a month, there is a consultant clinic on the mobile unit.
Volunteers likewise play an important role in the program's efficiency, Ms. Johnson said.
"The receptionist is always a volunteer -- mostly one day a month -- and they have just been excellent," she said. And about a month ago, a nurse's aide was added.
Ms. Johnson typically drives the 40-foot van to the different locations around the county to meet patients where they live.
"It's been a process of finding out what are the best spots, where it's easy to drive the truck on and off," she said.
Even though the looming van creates quite a presence wherever it goes, inside every available space is taken up by a waiting room and two patient areas. But that in itself has still proven to be a joy, Ms. Johnson said.
"Because we have got that little tiny waiting room, people of all races, colors, creeds sit and visit together. It's not ever been a problem," she said. "And we have fun. People joke and talk."
The calendar is always booked and Ms. Johnson said she has had to be firm about her limits, especially regarding calls on weekends, when the unit is closed. But she is quick to explain what the demand really means.
"We don't need another truck; we need another staff. (The truck) is capable of a lot more. We could just add to the route and the hours, the need is out there," she said.
Ms. Johnson said if she could convey anything to the public about WATCH, it would be ways they could support the program.
"We can always use volunteers if people would like to," she said. "There are things churches can do, like make little health kits, contribute money for medication, gas for the truck. And when we get fully staffed, they can send us people they know don't have Medicaid or Medicare."
Donations, which are tax-deductible, are appreciated, she said. And there is always a need for medical supplies, even basic items like cotton balls, alcohol and Band-Aids.
One thing Ms. Johnson will not have to worry about is finding a replacement. Earlier this month, Sue Barnett of Kinston was hired for the position.
Mrs. Barnett previously worked with Kinston Community Health Center and has been in the nursing profession since 1981. She has experience in the emergency room and critical care as well as home health and public health.
'This is really interesting," she said of her new job. "It's the same population I'm used to working with. I wanted to stay with this population."
She and husband John Jr., who works at Cherry Point, have three children, 15-year-old twin sons John III and Joshua, and 11-year-old daughter Amy, all students at Faith Christian Academy.
Mrs. Barnett said her first days working in the program with Ms. Johnson have been wonderful. She said she looks forward to many long and happy years in the position, "but I will never be able to fill her shoes."
"Remember," Ms. Johnson told her, "nothing was in place before I came so anything can be changed. With new ideas and fresh ideas, it's a new viewpoint on things."
Dr. Gaither and Mrs. Lee-Elmore have both worked closely with Ms. Johnson since she arrived. Each said they will "miss her terribly" but wish her well in the future.
Calling Ms. Johnson's contributions a "monumental effort," Gaither said it had been a "perfect fit for her and us."
"It really is a team effort but in every team there's usually one person who shows the most effort, stands above everyone else, and she is definitely that person," he said. "Not only does she care but she genuinely enjoys what she does.
"Certainly we hate to lose her but it's going to be somebody's gain...She has my open invitation to come back any time."
Mrs. Lee-Elmore commented about the heart Ms. Johnson had for the program and its patients.
"She's an inspiration to all of us on how to treat others," she said. "She makes each person feel special. She truly cares about the health and well-being of everyone she comes in contact with.
"We're lucky to have had her for six years. She made the program what it is today."
A reception has been planned to allow patients to say good-bye to Ms. Johnson this week. It will be held from 2-3 p.m. on Thursday at House of Fordham on William Street.
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