by Mary Helen Darah

Larry and Jill Johnson with Maggie and Bella.

“I love what I do,” stated Jill Johnson, APRN, CNP. “I have spent the last four decades holding people’s hands as they take their last breaths when they are lonely, scared and/or in pain.” Johnson graduated from the Toledo Hospital School of Nursing at the age of 21. The RN then received a Bachelor’s degree in Healthcare Supervision followed by a Master’s in Healthcare Administration. She worked as a staff nurse at St. Charles and then at Toledo Hospital in intensive care. From there she went to St. Vincent’s and became a Nursing Supervisor at the age of 26. “I worked in nursing management for 20 years in various hospitals and home care. I became an administrator of a small home health care agency, then attended the Medical College of Ohio to obtain my MSN/Family Nurse Practitioner degree in 2002,” recalled Johnson. “I practiced in a family practice and a surgical practice before landing at the ProMedica Hickman Cancer Center. As of October, I will have been here for eight years.”

A superhero of survivors
“I have the pleasure of helping survivors understand and get through their cancer journey,” said Johnson. “As of 2020, there will be 18 million cancer survivors in the United States. One of the things I do in my current position is to make sure that survivors are getting screenings in a timely manner. I work with patients with all types of cancers, which makes the job a bit more challenging. Most larger institutions address specific cancers in their survivor programs. We tackle them all. I educate them on potential long-term effects of treatment and provide a fitness program (free of charge) as exercise, shown through multiple studies, helps lower the risk of recurrence. I also offer psychological support, referring them out when necessary. One of the most important things I do is to formulate a care plan for moving forward. As coordinator of the Survivor program, I also provide events to celebrate the patient’s survivorship. I serve as a support and a sounding board. I provide them with information and answer any questions. I also provide reassurances that what they’re going through is normal and explain to them that the cancer journey never ends but that being a survivor can be a wonderful phase of life and an opportunity to give back.”

No time like the present
Although there are exceptions, cancer patients who have just finished treatment at Hickman usually find their way to “Super Jill.” She recalled, “I had a patient 10 years out from treatment. At first, she told me she wasn’t sure why she was referred to me. She recently sent me a letter saying she couldn’t believe how much information and support she received and how it was time well spent.”

Every day is a gift
One of the many reasons Johnson can relate to her patients is due to being a survivor herself. “I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma at the age of 49 with no symptoms,” she stated. “It was smoldering for five years. I had constant monitoring, but I had no treatment at that time. You don’t treat it unless it becomes more active. Year five it became more active and was treated with chemotherapy. I then had a bone marrow (stem cell) transplant, which totally wipes out your immune system. I was able to be my own donor, which helped. When I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma was incurable (it still is, and you can expect relapses) and I was given 3-5 years of survivorship. I have been blessed and in complete remission for nine years. When it’s appropriate to share with my patients, I tell them about what I learned from my experience. I share that cancer changes you, usually for the better. I truly believe I was divinely guided through the experience. It strengthened my spirituality. I treat every day as a gift. Little things don’t bother me. I overlook the everyday annoyances. I thank God every day for a second chance at life. It is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.”

Jill Johnson at the 2016 Light the Night event.

Moving forward
Johnson believes that there is an element of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that survivors experience. “A sight, a sound, or a smell can trigger a bad memory,” stated Johnson. “I can see people in the chemo chair and it takes me back. I make myself walk through the chemo bay for an opportunity to encourage someone with a smile and be thankful for what I have. It brings you back to reality and gives you an intense attitude of gratitude. I truly believe I went through the cancer experience for a reason. I mean, look what I do for a living. What better person to have in this role than someone who has been through it. I am very blessed and looking forward to another decade of holding hands and caring for others.”