Photo courtesy of Rona Johnson.
Photo courtesy of Rona Johnson.

A self-described “late bloomer” when it came to her career, CIRI shareholder Rona Johnson has more than made up for lost time.

Born and raised in Alaska, Rona spent her childhood on the Kenai Peninsula and moved to Anchorage after graduating high school. She dabbled in “weird jobs” for about a decade, trying to decide on a career path. In 1998, Rona’s grandmother fell ill and received treatment at the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC). “I watched her die and that changed my life,” Rona said. “I realized the end of life is a really sacred time, and that my feelings were largely shaped by the nurses who were caring for her.” The experience prompted her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Alaska Anchorage. In 2003, at the age of 33, she graduated cum laude.

Rona worked as a staff nurse from 2003 to 2006 at ANMC, after which time she moved into a management role. “But I missed the patients,” she said. “When a job with oncology came open, I jumped. That’s when I got the hankering for palliative care. I had done grief support before, but working with cancer patients, it really started to gel.”

In Western medicine, palliative care is a relatively new and little-understood specialty. According to the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, its goal is to improve a patient’s quality of life by managing pain and other distressing symptoms of a serious illness. Care is usually provided by an interdisciplinary team of experts, including palliative care doctors, nurses and social workers. The team addresses the physical, psychological, spiritual and practical burdens of illness, while providing support to and working in partnership with the doctor.

“Palliative care is often confused with hospice or end-of-life care,” Rona said. “About 75 percent of our patients are in their last year of life, but the rest are experiencing a decreased quality of life due to symptoms related to illness or treatment. Palliative caregivers are the supporters of suffering, whether it’s pain or other problems – mind, body and spirit.”

In 2005, via competitive selection, Rona participated in an evidence-based practice internship that was a collaboration between ANMC and the University of Iowa. “The internship allowed us (palliative caregivers) to work with experts who helped us focus on the ways we impact not only patients, but the medical staff as well,” she said. “They’re so intertwined; if the staff can’t navigate their own feelings, they can’t support people who are grieving or dying.”

ANMC’s Oncology Department features a mosaic wall of salmon created by Rona and her husband, John Ennenga. Photo courtesy of Rona Johnson.
ANMC’s Oncology Department features a mosaic wall of salmon created by Rona and her husband, John Ennenga. Photo courtesy of Rona Johnson.

Rona’s passion for and commitment to palliative care has been instrumental in growing ANMC’s program. “I was the lone caregiver in our hospital for a really long time,” she said. “We finally got a physician in 2015, and since then, our program has really grown. We now employ a social worker, a physician assistant, another nurse, a program manager and we just hired a second physician. I’m getting ready to transition to a nurse practitioner position, so we need a nurse to take my place and we’re looking to hire an additional social worker.”

Rona will receive her master’s degree in nursing from Omaha, Neb.-based Clarkson College later this summer. She is the past president of the local chapter of Oncology Nursing Society, a member of the ANMC Ethics Committee, and a founding member of ANMC’s Palliative Care Workgroup. For her work in end-of-life care and grief support, she has twice received Hospice of Anchorage’s “Hero of Healthcare” award. She received March of Dimes’ Nurse of the Year “Rising Star” award in 2004 and its “Innovation” award in 2015. A presenter at state, national and international conferences, Rona has spoken on a variety of topics including advance-care planning, end-of-life communication, and recruitment and retention of Alaska Native people in nursing.

Together, Rona and her husband, John Ennenga, own Laughing Chums Studio, which specializes in original mosaics made from glass and wood. “Art is really healing for me,” she said. “It’s really an awesome way to release and honor the people who’ve passed on and are on my mind.” ANMC’s Oncology Department features a mosaic wall of salmon created by the husband-and-wife team.

“I love my job,” Rona said. “I’m so fortunate to be able to care for my people. I’m passionate about preserving patients’ quality of life, respecting the autonomy of each person as his or her own decision-maker, and offering gentle guidance and support. I work with an amazing team; I couldn’t be luckier. This job absolutely gives me so much energy and so much perspective.”