Essential Humanism: Profiles of Courage in a Pandemic Part I: Amanda Joy Johnson, FNP

Tell us about your job. What are some of the ways it’s changed during the pandemic?

I’m a nurse practitioner providing primary care at a community clinic in Anacostia, in Southeast Washington, DC. We are trying to increase access to COVID testing for the low-income patients our clinic serves, so we’ve set up a tent outside our clinic designated for evaluating and testing patients for COVID-19 (the disease caused by the novel coronavirus). We’re also trying to prevent a major disruption in services for our patients, so we’ve rolled out telemedicine visits for all patients who can be evaluated and treated remotely.

Our providers now rotate between seeing patients in the clinic who need to be evaluated in person, providing care to patients via phone or video visits, and evaluating and testing patients in the COVID tent.

How do you feel about being an “essential” part of the workforce? 

I feel extremely lucky to be able to continue to help our patients with their healthcare needs, both acute and chronic, during this pandemic. I also feel like there is honor in being useful, and I’m doing everything I can to help reduce the impact of the pandemic.

Are you required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while at work? Is it provided to you?

Yes and yes. Everyone is now required to wear a mask at all times in the clinic, so we have surgical masks for that. When we evaluate patients in the COVID tent we wear N95 masks, face shields, and gowns.

What’s something your employer is doing well during the pandemic?

I am fortunate to work with a lot of very brilliant and dedicated individuals who are working tirelessly to respond to the constantly changing landscape of this pandemic. One of my mentors—and someone I feel lucky to call a close friend—oversaw the creation of our wholly new telemedicine program. We can now serve our patients via that modality, enabling patients to have their needs met without having to leave the house and risk exposure.

Our organization has also been working closely with the District of Columbia government in handling the treatment of homeless patients, providing medical care and oversight to reduce the impact and disease burden on this incredibly vulnerable population.

The medical director at my clinic has also been remarkably compassionate about juggling people’s myriad fears and limitations about working in healthcare in what can feel like a scary and overwhelming landscape.

The organization has also been sending daily COVID updates to keep us abreast of the latest information and changes, which is very helpful considering how quickly information is changing. Their communication has helped me feel informed and connected in what can be a very confusing and isolating time.

What’s something you would change to make your work environment better or safer during the pandemic?

We screen every patient before they’re allowed to enter the clinic, and those who have symptoms or exposure history related to COVID are evaluated in the tent. We are constantly updating our screening criteria as we learn more about the virus and its presentation. Still, we sometimes get patients back into an exam room in the clinic before discovering that they have a low-grade fever or another concerning symptom. While there is no way to eliminate risk completely, we need to keep doing as much as we can to mitigate it.

How does being an essential worker affect your family? What are their reactions?

My husband is also an essential worker—he is a doctor at one of our local hospitals and has been working on the COVID unit since the pandemic started. We have three small children—age two, four, and seven—and we put them into increased isolation. We knew we were being exposed at work and didn’t want to potentially expose others. This was especially hard on our oldest, who didn’t understand why he couldn’t have playdates or go with his friends to the playground (in these times, inconveniently located across the street from our house; the playground closures actually made that part of our lives much easier.)

We’ve also both been working longer hours since this started, trying to help out as much as we can. We’re trying to balance the needs of our patients and organizations with the needs of our children, and this has definitely proved to be challenging at times. We’re also not seeing my in-laws to avoid exposing them, so our previous backup childcare plan is no longer an option. However, we are lucky to have an amazing babysitter who has been a huge help. She’s basically become our full-time nanny and we wouldn’t be able to do this without her.

Our two-year-old and four-year-old don’t seem to mind too much—they like being at home—but our seven-year-old definitely misses the independence school offered and has been letting us know as much. I have to remind myself that this isn’t easy for any of us and that I need to be patient with him.

How can the public make your job easier and/or safer?

Continue to socially distance, not rush to reopen, wait until our public health scientists have deemed it safe, and trust science.

What kind of positive change do you hope comes out of the pandemic—for you, for society at large?

I do not mind the slower pace our lives have shifted to in the absence of social engagements. We’ve also felt deeply supported by our community—friends have picked up groceries and dropped off meals, sent toys and crafts to occupy our children, and reached out to let us know they’re thinking about us. I would love to see a sort of reckoning about what really matters in our lives, a preservation of what is precious, and a letting go of the more trivial pressures.

For our larger society, I would hope that this reckoning of priorities could happen on a macro scale. Our society works best when we’re working together toward a common goal: protecting our most vulnerable. Americans have always done a spectacularly poor job of valuing caregivers. Could we reevaluate and emphasize that people matter more than profit? That there is value in raising children and caring for our elderly?

What do you miss the most about your pre-pandemic life?

Being alone in my house. My children are at prime mess-making age—the middle one could teach a master class in mess making. I often find myself cleaning up one area of the house while he is industriously messing up another. At least when he’s at school I didn’t feel like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.

When I’m home now I usually have at least one of the three of them, often two and not infrequently all three, touching my body. I so miss my alone time, having an opportunity to clean and feel like I’m actually accomplishing something while someone else is not actively negating it, and just having my body to myself. I’m sure that mothers of small children everywhere can relate to this sentiment—it has nothing to do with being a frontline worker!

Does a religious faith inform your values? 

My husband has long maintained that community is my religion, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I wasn’t raised in a religious home but have always felt like I have a strong moral compass. While we aspire to attend Quaker meeting (my husband was raised Quaker, and there are certain aspects of the faith that appeal to me), I’m more informed by my belief in the inherent goodness of people, and my desire to do all I can to help as many people as I can.

Do people you interact with on the job express religious beliefs to you or in other ways express their values?

Oh yes! My patients tell me every day that they’re praying for me and my family. This is one of the ways they communicate that they care about me, and I appreciate it profoundly.