Meet Along the Way: Nancy Johnson

This story was first published in the March 2024 issue of The Best Years as “Faces of Southeast Missouri: Nancy Johnson.”

Photo by Aaron Eisenhauer

While sitting in the Emergency Room (ER) waiting room one evening in 1990, Nancy Johnson decided to become a nurse. Her friend’s husband had been in a fatal automobile accident, and two women in one-piece uniforms who had been part of the flight crew came over to talk with her friend. As Johnson watched them get into a helicopter and take off, she decided she specifically wanted to become a flight nurse.

Thirty years old at the time, she began working as an ER tech in 1995 and graduated from nursing school the following year. Then, she worked as a pediatric nurse for nine months before becoming an ER nurse. In 1999, she began her work as a flight nurse, which she did for seven years, including after she was in a helicopter crash while on the job. She earned her Master in Nursing degree and taught nursing at Shawnee College for two years while working as a nurse manager for inpatient rehabilitation. She then worked again as an ER nurse while becoming a family nurse practitioner and then going into rural health in 2012.

Now, Johnson works as adjunct faculty at Southeast Missouri State University, supervising community health clinicals and teaching the med-surgical nursing class for the next generation of nurses.

Her work is inspired by her mother, who worked as a polio and tuberculosis public health nurse at Oakland County Contagious Hospital in Michigan during the 1950s and 1960s, utilizing pioneering polio nurse Sister Kenny’s innovative methods for treating polio through massage and physical therapy techniques. Today, Johnson still has a sanitized stainless steel pitcher and tray from the hospital that her mother used in their home.

“My mom loved to care for people. And she had a knack for just knowing what to say when someone was really going through a bad spot,” Johnson says. “She always encouraged me, ‘Nancy, do whatever you can, for whoever you can, whenever you can.’ And that just kind of stuck with me.”

After Johnson became a nurse, she says her mother always wanted to hear her stories about nursing, and they discussed what to do differently within certain scenarios, which Johnson says brought them “close together.” Then, Johnson cared for her mother during the last years of her mother’s life.

Johnson, like her mother, is passionate about public health. Voters elected Johnson to the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center Board of Trustees in 2023. She wants more people to know about the services offered at the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, including pediatric and well-woman primary care, vaccines and the STD clinic, among other services.

“If the public could see the health department as being a resource center instead of the enemy, I think it would be wonderful, because they are a wonderful resource for the community,” Johnson says.

Johnson loves public health because the professionals in the field are welcoming, and it connects her to her mother. She says the services offered at rural health clinics are for everyone, regardless of how much or how little income or insurance someone has; if more people don’t start utilizing rural health clinics, she worries they may go away.

“Community health, it shouldn’t be a dying entity. We should be celebrating our public health departments for all that they do for us,” Johnson says. “The way that they keep us safe — from environmental visits and the restaurants, [the way] they keep them on their toes, and the clinics that they run and the WIC programs that they do — all of that should be celebrated. It really should be.”


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