Educator reflects on career following ALS diagnosis
Michelle Johnson-Anderson never intended to become a nurse. It was a guidance counselor at Panama Central School who pointed her in that direction.
That advice ultimately set into motion what ended up being a 40-year career in the field, with the last half as the longest-serving instructor for the licensed practical nursing program at Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES. During that time she has helped guide aspiring nurses into countless careers in hospitals, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and management.
“I am most proud of the students I have had the pleasure to know and be a part of their journey into nursing,” Johnson-Anderson said. “They have each taught me something, sometimes it wasn’t the lesson you expected. There were times I learned not to be naive or gullible — there were times I learned to ease back on the use of my red pen. There was a student who said I suffered from red pen ‘itis’ meaning that I used my red pen too much on her homework. There were times I learned that I had to tell the student ‘I believed in them’ because they did not yet believe in their own abilities. Something one of my instructors did for me.”
However, an Aug. 25, 2020, diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, means Johnson-Anderson’s teaching career will soon come to an end. It was devastating news for the Chautauqua County native who also previously worked at Warren General Hospital.
“Being a nurse means you know all what that diagnosis means,” said the Ashville resident. “It was a death sentence and I struggled with it. There is very little in terms of active treatment for ALS. Truth be told, I am still struggling with it.”
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that impacts nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord; most stricken are between the ages of 40 and 70.
Johnson-Anderson said she plans to retire from the LPN program at BOCES on Friday, with hopes of doing some per diem work from home via distance learning.
“I loved teaching and am saddened by the fact this disease will put an end to that,” she said. “My students have always been the drive to do more, to do better, to help them in anyway I can to succeed in nursing. We all need nurses that care and I’m proud to say that I feel nurses coming from our program at Hewes Center learn the value of caring.”
Amanda Merchant, a former colleague, noted Johnson-Anderson has dedicated her career to the LPN program as evident by the number of students who have gone on to further their education in the nursing field.
“She has been a wonderful role model and community leader,” Merchant said. “Dozens of nurses owe her a debt of gratitude for helping them become the professionals they are today. Many of them have gone on to further their education beyond their LPN thanks to Michelle’s encouragement and mentorship. She is well-known and respected by the local health care community — UPMC Chautauqua, the Heritage facilities, the local doctor office, and the Community Foundation as she assisted with setting up a scholarship program for student nurses.”
Merchant said she was shocked to learn of Johnson-Anderson’s ALS diagnosis. Despite moving out of the area, the two remain close and communicate regularly.
“It was devastating and scary,” she said of hearing the news. “It’s hard for me because I can’t hug her right now, even with COVID when that hit. I just want to give her a hug and try to comfort her.”
In her nearly two-decade teaching career, Johnson-Anderson has many fond memories involving her students. One that stands out among others, she noted, is that of a student who received an honorary nursing degree after learning of a terminal disease four months into the program.
“Before she died I got permission to go to her home with many of her classmates and award her that degree,” Johnson-Anderson recalled.
“I have tried to keep track of those students and how they are all doing, and I am proud to say that so many of them have rewarding careers and many more have gone on to be RNs or even nurse practitioners,” she continued. “I have had the pleasure of working with many wonderful instructors at the Hewes Center/Jones Hill program as well.”
Other memories during her career as a nurse have had a profound impact on her life. She noted “bearing witness” to a family grieving over a dying patient; doing CPR on patients and having them walk out of the hospital later; and comforting those in home care who were feeling lonely.
However, it’s seeing her students graduate from the LPN program that still brings her joy. “It is the culmination of a year’s work and to see the students walk up and receive their degree is so fulfilling,” she said.
LOOKING TO GIVE BACK
A GoFundMe (https://gofund.me/4b92a515) has been established by Megan Grice, an LPN and program skills assistant with BOCES, to help provide relief for the Johnson-Anderson family. That includes assisting with medical bills or “giving her the option to spoil herself in some way,” Grice said.
Grice met Johnson-Anderson in 2007 while a student in the program. She credited her instructor with helping to lay the foundation to her nursing career, and in 2016, the pair began working together after Grice became a skills instructor within the same nursing program.
Like others, Grice said she was devastated learning of Johnson-Anderson’s illness when told last fall.
“We all felt powerless and full of grief,” Grice said. “I remember being stunned by the ironic fact that Michelle was the one who taught me the distressful process of ALS and now, here she is suffering from this cruel illness. There really are no words for that.”
She added, “Michelle is the quintessential nursing instructor. Her knowledge base is vast and she conveys it with confidence. She has guided hundreds of students throughout her career and indirectly countless patients’ lives have been impacted by her expertise and compassion. I am honored to have had the opportunity to learn from her and to call her my friend.”
Johnson-Anderson said her family also has helped her cope with her diagnosis. She said her 22-year-old daughter and husband, Kyle, have been strengths in her life.
“I wouldn’t be anywhere without them,” she said. “Truth be told I feel terrible putting them through this with me. I have two brothers, and their families, and my mother who also help with groceries and errands. I would be lost without all of them. They are the real heroes in my story.”
Still, the longtime instructor said she will miss being part of the LPN program.
“What kept me going was work, it gave me a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning,” she said. “I have always loved teaching and I thought if this will be my last class then I want to do everything I can to make their year the best it can be. They are an amazing group of students and I am so proud of all they have accomplished in less than ideal circumstances. I taught from home and this meant a limited personal interface with them. But it didn’t stop me from getting to know/see their personalities emerge as they got to know me.”