12/06/12 — WATCH nurse says she will retire Dec. 15

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WATCH nurse says she will retire Dec. 15

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 6, 2012 1:46 PM

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Kathy Johnson, right, nurse practitioner with WATCH the bulk of its 12 years in Wayne County, was recognized at the organization's meeting Wednesday. Ms. Johnson is retiring mid-month. At left is Jackie Carlson of Quest Diagnostics, the company that provides lab work for the program at no cost.

Twelve years ago, when officials were preparing to introduce a health care option for the underinsured residents of Wayne County, Kathy Johnson seemed like a natural fit as nurse practitioner.

She had been a consultant for the N.C. Office of Rural Health and, more importantly, had a heart for the oft-ignored segment of the population.

WATCH, or Wayne Action Teams for Community Health, started out with a looming mobile van that canvassed the county, often with the diminutive woman with a feisty spirit at the wheel.

Six years later, family obligations in another state pulled her away, only to see her return in the summer of 2009 to operate the addition of the second WATCH clinic, at the YMCA.

Dec. 15, the 70-year-old will retire.

"I have some mixed feelings," she said Tuesday, noting that she probably won't miss driving the monstrous truck or all the computer notes and paperwork such a program requires. "But I will miss patients a lot and the staff."

Her passion for WATCH remains, she says.

"I'm just so grateful that we have had the program," she said. "I don't know how Sissy (Lee-Elmore, executive director) has gotten grant money for all these years. It's just amazing. She's worked so hard at that.

"I just think of the thousands of patients that we have seen. It's just been a privilege to share in their lives."

There are many ways to measure the success of such a program, from the full appointment calendar and increasing number of patients served to providing care for chronic and even potentially terminal illnesses.

Ms. Johnson has her own criteria of what has made it rewarding.

"A lot of variety of things -- work physicals that could help people get jobs that they couldn't afford to get, some disability physicals," she said. "We have diagnosed some cancers, found some things that just weren't picked up."

She was recognized Wednesday by the WATCH board for her years of service and presented with a clock.

"This has been my best job, and I have grown to know and love so many patients and so many good staff," she said. "I'm just more grateful than I can say."

It's a bittersweet time of transition, she said afterward. She already has a hospice patient she's been working with, which will continue, and she will likely involve herself in other interests, including the food pantry in Raleigh and serving on committees with Catholic Charities.

"And of course, there's always babysitting for my grandchildren," she said with a smile.

A successor at the standing clinic has been named, and Betty Zimmerman, who has been employed at Wayne Memorial Hospital for 20-plus years, started this week.

The Wilson native previously worked with Dr. Leon McCaskill, a family practice physician, and has experience in correctional health, with the incarcerated, as well as in the intensive care unit and women's floor at the hospital.

"I wanted a change and because I have been working two jobs, I was looking for something where I could focus on one thing," she said. "When the WATCH van originally came out, at that time I interviewed with Sissy but I don't know, I didn't do it then, and here I am back all these years later."

Years ago, the hospital provided her with a scholarship to further her education and become a nurse practitioner, she said. While part of the agreement was to work off the debt and the loan would be forgiven, she also feels it's important to make a difference and is excited about the prospects that WATCH offers.

"I like the hands on part of it, it's my favorite part," she said. "I think it's exciting to be a part of something like that, where you're offering to people who have no means of health care without it.

"It's always rewarding when you see somebody and they have got a problem and you see the problem resolved and you see the same people over and over."