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Walden Magazine // Jan 01, 2015

Outstanding Alumni Award 2015: Answering the Call to Battle Ebola

Crystal Johnson, a 2014 graduate of Walden’s Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, has been named the 2015 Outstanding Alumni Award winner for her role in treating the first Ebola patients on U.S. soil at Emory University Hospital.

Johnson, a nurse scholar at the hospital’s Serious Communicable Disease Unit (SCDU), has been a nurse at Emory for 16 years, and signed up for the SCDU 8 years ago. “I know they say nursing is a profession, but I believe it’s a calling,” Johnson says. “It’s been in me since day one.”

Answering the Call

That was never as clear as the day she got the call from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that the SCDU had been activated. “My mom asked me if I could run,” Johnson says. “I told her, ‘No. This is my calling.’ I had forgotten for a while why I got into nursing. This was why. Some nurses never get this opportunity.”

Johnson was assigned the first shift in treating Dr. Kent Brantly—a medical missionary and the first person with the Ebola virus in the U.S.—and his coworker Nancy Writebol when they were admitted to Emory. As part of “Team Ebola,” Johnson provided life-saving care and helped develop policies and procedures for treating the highly contagious disease. She recalls that in some of the hardest moments, she relied on knowledge from her Walden education.

“It all had to come back to me because it was just me and my patients,” Johnson says. “I had to be their physical therapist, their nutritionist, their dialysis nurse, their psychologist, their friend, and their shoulder to cry on. I had to be everything.”

Changing the Conversation About Nursing

Taking on such an intense challenge—including spending 6 or more hours at a time inside a Tyvek® protective suit—changed her perspective on the role of nurses during a crisis. “Nursing wasn’t always a glorious profession,” Johnson says. “People see a different side of what we’re really all about: being selfless.”

Johnson had the opportunity to sit down with President Barack Obama to discuss the experience of treating Ebola patients, the lessons she learned, and how to apply those lessons to the treatment of patients in West Africa as well as in the U.S. Johnson recalls that President Obama helped her realize the importance of her work: “He thanked three doctors, but he said he knows who does all the work. It’s the nurses.”

That statement from President Obama helped changed the national dialogue on nursing, according to Johnson. She says that the younger generation, in particular, has been especially receptive and proud of what nurses accomplished during this time. “I hear from the younger folks all the time that they want to get into nursing now,” she says.

Playing that role—the simple act of performing her job every day—helped Johnson achieve new insight into her work. “Social change never seemed attainable to me while I was at Walden. It was big, it was scary,” she says. “But it doesn’t take much. Sometimes it just takes doing your job and applying the skills you have.”

Effecting Positive Social Change

Now seen as social change agents nationally, if not globally, Johnson and her colleagues continue to train staffs from hospitals around the world and conduct research in areas of Ebola treatment and recovery that hadn’t been studied previously. For example, there is research on how long men who were infected should wait to have sex after being cured, but no literature on similar guidelines for women. New research efforts have provided insight into a disease that has been difficult to research due to the death rates of those infected, and highlight the need to be adaptable to ever-changing conditions.

“Ebola has been primarily only in third-world countries until now,” Johnson says. “To be in a country where we have the resources to do the research means we’re really making a difference. I hate that it hit the United States, but it needed to in order to get the resources needed.”

By being, as she says, in the right place at the right time, Johnson has secured herself a place in history—simply by doing her job.

“Crystal Johnson’s service to humankind is the epitome of Walden’s vision established by Rita and Bernie Turner some 45 years ago,” said 2014 Outstanding Alumni Award winner Dr. Walter McCollum ’04. “I congratulate her and am thrilled to welcome her to an esteemed roster of social change agents.”