“There are going to a lot of mommies missing out.”
Last Tuesday, former and current clients of Sue Johnson gathered to celebrate and offer their thanks to a woman who some have dubbed their second mother as she prepared to retire from a 40-year nursing career spent largely helping new mothers adjust to the emotional highs and lows of life with their first baby. As anyone who has given birth or been involved with a newborn’s care, the experience is as overwhelming as it is joyous. The roller coaster of hormones and emotions combined with sleep deprivation can weaken even the mightiest of mothers. A kind word and non-judgmental approach can go a long way to restore a new mother’s outlook, especially when they’re feeling like nothing is going right, can’t speak English or are new to the country.
Over her nearly four-decade career, Johnson has provided invaluable support and encouragement to thousands of new mothers and babies in Vancouver. She’s worked in maternity wards, with single mother groups, gone on countless home visits, helped families connect with community resources and will lead at least one more Spanish-language Healthiest Babies Possible program for Latin American women.
Many of her clients dropped by the Robert and Lily Lee Family Community Health Centre on Broadway near Commercial Drive to show their gratitude on Tuesday. It was the penultimate day to a satisfying career, which started in 1972 after the Yukon-native graduated from the University of B.C. “I’ve been very lucky because I’ve loved my job.”
At 63, Johnson says she’s reached her best-before date. Don’t believe her. Looking tanned, relaxed (thanks to a recent Mexican holiday) and a little emotional, the dark-haired Johnson is vivacious, energetic and blessed with one of those dulcet voices that could probably calm a tantrum-prone toddler in two minutes. But Johnson has focussed on new moms and babies for the last 25 years, helping people like Angela de Kraker care for Rhys, now eight months old.
“Sue was the only one who knew how to pronounce my son’s name,” says de Kraker laughing. “Everyone else pronounced it Rice... Sue also has an amazing ability to remember names. I remember once there were about 50 of us in the group one week and I showed her a rash on Rhys. When we came back the next week, she remembered who we were and our names.”
De Kraker keeps coming to the mother-baby group—even though Rhys is beyond six months old—because of Johnson. “You can’t replace the knowledge she has. She gave me the confidence to keep going despite lots of problems like colic. Sometimes you just need someone to tell you you’re doing a good job. It’s not medical advice, but it’s valuable.”
Erin McKinley agrees. She’s been part of Johnson’s drop-in group since her daughter Ailish was born almost seven months ago. “I didn’t know the real value of the group was Sue,” McKinley says. “I had breast feeding challenges and was feeling close to the end of my rope but Sue was so helpful letting me know the decision to continue [breastfeeding] was up to me and that whatever I decided I was still a good mother. Sue is just like a second mom... very compassionate.”
Johnson, who spent the early part of her career at the Pine Street Clinic dealing with a gonorrhea outbreak in Vancouver in the 1970s, believes the real value she provides is connecting people and creating community.
“This may sounds trite, but when people come together in a group and share it builds that community and forges friendships,” Johnson explains. “I can’t be with mothers at night when they’re baby is colicky, but they can call another new mother they met at a group and they can support each other when the community health clinic closes.”
Johnson bumped into a former client who updated her on how her child was doing at university and how she still keeps in contact with other mothers from the baby group—18 years on.
“That’s the value of the group,” Johnson said on the first day of her retirement. “You have such an opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives and you don’t realize the impact you’ve had until you’re leaving. It has been a privilege as a public health nurse to have been invited into people’s homes.”
Johnson’s advice to new moms is simple: “If you can get out of the door and go to a group—even if you’re utterly sleep deprived—go. You’ll meet other equally exhausted mothers and benefit from hearing their stories and know that you’re not alone.”
Happy retirement Sue. And yes, there will be many mommies missing out.