Saturday, 20 January 2018

WOMAN ON A MISSION: New NAJ president Carmen Johnson draws on her faith and fearlessness to take on her toughest leadership role

CALL OF DUTY: "The biggest challenge I face is successfully completing the negotiations," says Johnson.

Taking over as President of the Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ) has presented Carmen L. Johnson with the role of a lifetime. She speaks candidly about her vision, her challenges and the road ahead.

THE first thing that grabs your attention upon entering the boardroom at the Nurses Association of Jamaica (NAJ) secretariat on Trevennion Road in Kingston are the framed wall photographs. Neat rows of portraits of past presidents who have served the 71-year-old association with distinction. There’s Dame Nita Barrow, the body’s first appointed leader, and there’s a smiling Edith Allwood-Anderson, the most popular (unforgettable rather) president to serve the NAJ.

Since November 1 of last year, Miss Carmen L. Johnson, a veteran of the nursing profession, has been occupying the seat at the head of the table. Johnson, a devout Christian and mother currently in her 50s, comes to the post at a time of radical developments in the health sector. But she is undaunted by current and future challenges. Elegantly slender with erect shoulders and a workmanlike demeanour, she exudes the aura of someone who is used to taking on Herculean leadership tasks and coming out on top. We get that kind of confidence from her. At the same time, Carmen Johnson knows she has big shoes to fill.

“Having learned from those who have gone on, my main objective is continuing the work so that our association can advance to the next level, the level that they envisioned,” she reports. “We are now in our 71st year, and I hope the association will go on for another 70 years and remain viable and relevant to the needs of the nurses.”

And what the island’s nurses need at the moment is a more “acceptable” wage package from the government as the negotiations intensify. “The biggest challenge I face is successfully completing the negotiations, so that the nurses feel they are being adequately compensated for the meaningful service they have been giving their country. If we can achieve some meaningful level of remuneration for the nurses, I would feel satisfied,” Johnson says.

When she speaks of the plight of nurses who struggle to make ends meet, Johnson is speaking as someone who has been in that position. Who feels it knows it. “It’s what I know for myself. Many of our nurses can’t afford to buy food after paying their bills and making student loan payments. That’s what we’re talking about. Nursing education is no longer sponsored by the government; it’s now under the university council. So nurses have to borrow from institutions like Students’ Loan Bureau, which is quite expensive,” she explains.

Frankly, the president says, the Holness government’s current wage offer just will not do. Last month, the NAJ met with State Minister Rudyard Spencer, who stressed that the government’s increase offer still stands at six percent. The Government is offering the nurses three percent in year one and three percent in year two. When a revised offer was demanded, it still remained at six percent but amended to four percent in year one and two percent in year two. “We got it in writing, and we have since responded to the ministry, declining the offer,” Johnson tells us, rifling through her papers for something to back her up.

So the negotiations tug-o-war will resume in 2018, but hopefully it will come to a mutually beneficial resolution. “We are hoping we’ll be able to appeal to the Government’s conscience, so we can broker an agreement. We want them to be cognizant of our position, as we are cognizant of theirs,” Johnson emphasizes, with no shortage of concern in her voice. “Saying to the nurses, ‘Here is six percent; this is all we can offer’, what you are saying to the nurses is, ‘You can go.’ I’m really hoping we can reach the point where both parties will have a win-win situation.”
Every leader wants to have the strongest possible team to work with. As NAJ President, one of Carmen Johnson’s greatest concerns is the large number of A-grade nurses leaving our shores in search of a better life overseas. “Some of our best nurses are migrating faster than we can speak to them. That’s where a major management challenge lies. We can’t keep the experienced and trained nurses. We are losing them to the US and Canada. So a lot of the inexperienced nurses are being thrown into management positions. The nurses are willing to work but you find that the younger generation nurses are not as strong as the older ones,” Johnson explains.

She adds, “Sometimes there are more patients to care for with less staff. The number of patients can be overwhelming, so a major responsibility is how we the experienced ones groom the younger ones, because the challenges exist. You have resource challenges and challenges in balancing the clinical side and the humanistic side.”

Problems aside, the life-altering experiences that have come with being in the nursing profession have been the most rewarding of Carmen Johnson’s life. While at Knox College, she wanted to pursue sociology, but as a member of her church committee that would regularly visit the sick and the shut-ins, she was being groomed for the work she’s doing now. Even people who knew her then told her she was a natural care-giver.

Johnson officially became a nurse in the late 80s and by November 1990, she was being assigned to the St. Ann’s Bay Hospital. As with any job, there were days when she felt like throwing in the towel out of frustration, but the encouragement and support from her extended family, church brethren, fellow prayer warriors and work colleagues keep her going. In fact, her co-workers knew they had found their next president in Carmen Johnson. “I think they wanted me for the job more than I wanted it,” she remembers, laughing. “As part of our succession planning, they thought I would be the right person for the job at this time, so I accepted the honour.”

Drawing strength from her Christian faith (she attends the Runaway Bay New Testament Church when he goes home on weekends) and those within her circle, Johnson, who is not married and enjoys her own company, feels suitably armed to continue fighting the good fight. “I’m happy the way I am. I know how to survive and I have that structure around me to help me,” she says. “I take my life in stages. I plan and move from one level to the next level.” 

> Miss Carmen on staying healthy and hearty: 
“I exercise a lot. It’s one of my addictions. I eat healthy. Water is my medicine, so I drink a lot of that.”

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