In May, the University of Cincinnati’s College of Nursing recognized Meghan Johnson, chief certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) at Highland District Hospital, with its Florence Nightingale Award for Excellence in Nursing.
According to UC, Johnson was one of six individual recipients, selected out of 120 nominations, in the Greater Cincinnati region who “combine intelligence, critical thinking and compassion, working tirelessly to provide exceptional care and advance the field of nursing.”
The UC College of Nursing selected Johnson due to her extensive work to develop standards to effectively combat opioid addiction at HDH.
“Johnson has shown leadership as well as compassion and skill, taking dynamic action above and beyond daily clinical care in response to a growing public health crisis,” college of nursing representatives said.
Johnson told The Times-Gazette that she was somewhat surprised by the award.
“As a nurse and a nurse anesthetist, you work — always — behind the scenes,” Johnson said. “There’s usually very little recognition for what we do and the contributions we make, so it was a little surprising. Obviously, it makes you feel pretty good that people are noticing the difference you make in people’s lives.”
This September will mark Johnson’s 20th year as a CRNA, four of which she’s spent at HDH.
Around 21 years ago, Johnson was preparing to leave a position as an ICU nurse at Mercy Health-Anderson Hospital in Cincinnati due to the job’s emotional strain.
“I’d been working there for about three years, and in ICU, you would take care of the same person for months, and then they may die,” Johnson said. “Then you may see their family members — who you saw every single day — at church, at Kroger, at the park. It was really, emotionally, for me, very difficult to see those people and know their loved one is not there anymore.”
Initially, she planned to become a pharmaceutical sales representative, but Dr. Michael Claybon, who was an anesthesiologist at Mercy-Anderson at the time, helped talk her into becoming a CRNA.
“I was going to go sell pharmaceuticals because I thought that would be a much easier deal. Dr. Claybon was pretty persnickety, and he didn’t like very many people, but for some reason he liked me. He basically told me selling pharmaceuticals was the dumbest thing I could ever do, I was way too smart, and I should be a nurse anesthetist,” Johnson said. “He literally took me in the operating room and showed me what they did and wrote a recommendation for me to go to anesthesia school. I applied, had an interview in February, and the next thing I knew, the next September I was starting school.”
Though working as a nurse anesthetist can also take a toll, Johnson said she finds it rewarding.
“I’ve given probably at least tens of thousands of anesthetics over my 20 years, and I worked at UC for 10 years and did trauma and taught, but you remember the patients who didn’t make it. There is a lot of stress to what we do — we make it look very easy, and we make it very safe, but there are definitely a lot of stressful situations at times, that’s for sure,” Johnson said. “Anesthesia is a sleep-induced coma, so we use the same medication they use for lethal injections every single day. The only difference is we keep patients alive. It’s a tremendous honor, but it’s also a tremendous responsibility. Somebody’s putting their life in your hands. I never want to let any of those people down.”
Johnson came to HDH in 2016, bringing this sense of responsibility and compassion with her, and in the four years since she began working in the community, HDH’s anesthesia department has completely changed some of its procedures.
“We totally altered how we do anesthesia. We use a lot of opioid-free anesthesia techniques, which give anesthesia without giving narcotics,” Johnson said. “Before I went to work at Highland District, I worked in Cincinnati, and while we definitely saw patients who had opioid use disorder, it wasn’t to the extent that I saw in Highland County. It really posed a problem — you can’t just operate as normal because you aren’t going to take care of that patient adequately. They have a specific set of circumstances, issues and needs that must be addressed before, during and after surgery to keep them safe and pain-free, and from relapsing.
“There can be a lot of stigma involved, especially in small communities like Hillsboro where everybody knows everyone and their families. I always think that my job is to take care of the person and not judge the choices they’ve made in life. I think everyone’s made choices in life that they’re not proud of, and I think the best thing we can do for each other is approach each other with kindness and compassion, and that’s what I try to do.”
However, Johnson said there are other changes that have been difficult to make.
“Treatments that are available elsewhere may not be available in Highland County,” Johnson said. “There’s no needle exchange program because there is such a stigma attached to IV drug use, but we do know that there’s a 500 percent increase in Hepatitis B, and that we’re on target to be one of the top 200 counties in the country for HIV infections. These are things that people don’t necessarily want to take head-on with open eyes, but everyone knows someone — whether a family member, a friend, an acquaintance — who’s been affected by IV drug use.
“In Cincinnati, patients with IV drug history would be tested for Hepatitis B and C and HIV. We were finding that patients in Highland County weren’t being tested. Whether their family doctor doesn’t want to address it, it’s cost-prohibitive, or it’s just not on the radar — it was not something that was being done, especially HIV testing. We do have Dr. Kulkarni at the hospital, and he really started an uptick in testing for Hepatitis C in his patients with a history of IV drug use.”
Johnson has also helped bring other medical professionals to Highland County to work in the community, like Dr. Jennifer Lanzillotta, who has received over $1 million in grants to implement programs that address substance use disorder in the county.
“I was talking to Jennifer, saying like, ‘I’m seeing these patients who can’t have opioids, and it makes labor and delivery impossible, it makes C-sections impossible, it makes this impossible and that impossible,’ and I said, ‘I’m doing this research, and I’m doing opioid-free anesthesia, and I’m seeing all of these techniques — you’re a PhD person; come help me,’” Johnson said. “We have totally changed how we do C-section anesthesia and general anesthesia to really limit opioids in the community. It really takes a lot of effort and a buy-in from the surgeons, who, at first, were like, ‘We’ve done it this way for 30 years. This is how we’re going to do it.’ But then, when you have a patient and you can do it that way, they kind of start coming around. It’s been a slow but sure process, and I think we’re making good strides and impact.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.