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This series takes a look at the stories appearing in The Rebel Nurse Handbook, which features inspiring nurses who push the boundaries of healthcare and the nursing profession. This installment focuses on nurse, writer, public speaker, and acting director of Show Me Your Stethoscope, Dr. Jalil Johnson.

Jalil Johnson found his career in nursing at what might have been the lowest point of a hard life. After graduating from high school, the impoverished Tennessean was struggling. Living from paycheck to paycheck, he ultimately found himself working as a $7.00-an-hour dishwasher. Then came the night—at a time when he had no more than $10 to his name—that Johnson found himself laid off.

During the relentless job hunt that followed, a newspaper ad for free Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) classes caught his eye. Johnson was intrigued, but in his impoverished state, the cost of the course textbooks was beyond his means. As he sat in front of the school planning his next move, he happened to encounter the Dean of the program. The Dean was touched by Johnson’s situation and his astounding resolve. With his encouragement and assistance, Johnson applied for financial aid, enrolled in the CNA classes, and embarked upon a career in nursing.

The CNA training, and later the job itself, changed his life. After getting his CNA, Johnson decided to continue his nursing education. What inspired this decision? Johnson says, “there were many pivotal moments that encouraged me to pursue higher education. An important moment was the sense of absolute fulfillment I felt after working with my first patient as a CNA. Until that point in my life, I’d never actually helped a person with their care, health, or with the simple aim to make their life a little better. When my patient sincerely said ‘thank you so much’ to me that day, I knew I wanted to learn as much as I could about how to do this work. I wanted to expand my ability to have positive impact on people.”

Johnson spent the next two decades climbing the professional ladder: he became an LPN, an RN, was awarded a BSN, went on to take his master’s degree and training as a Nurse Practitioner, and later received his PhD as a nurse scientist. “Each time I completed another degree or level of licensure, my scope of practice and experience changed. The impact I had on patients wasn’t better with more education, but it was different. I enjoyed being challenged in this way. I continued this way of thinking through my studies, including my journey to become a nurse practitioner and nurse scientist (PhD).” Along the way, he worked in positions ranging from traveling nurse, to ICUs and EDs, to substance use treatment programs and behavioral health, and teaching CNA, LPN, RN, and DNP students. “I’ve never forgotten how amazing it feels to empower someone else,” he says.

Empowerment is a keyword for Johnson, who vividly recalls “the powerlessness I often felt throughout my career. Regardless of my level of practice, I always felt that the work and the care could be better, but I never felt I had any power to really change anything. My assumption was that more education would lead to having more say in my practice, and subsequently less feelings of powerlessness. Well, I was wrong about that. The powerless feeling followed me throughout many practice settings and scopes of practice.”

Johnson sought ways to overcome this sense of powerlessness, and found that his views were shared by “hundreds of thousands of nurses out there, who love their work as I do, but also feel like the healthcare system doesn’t work for them or their patients.” Seeking empowerment for himself and his fellow nurses, he began to work in self-advocacy with communities like Show Me Your Stethoscope and Nurses Take DC, and became a writer and public speaker.

When asked what he feels most passionate about in his career, Johnson replies, “I’m passionate about many things. I enjoy caring for my patients and love teaching. However, I’m most passionate about inspiring other bedside nurses to unify behind causes they believe in. As the largest profession within healthcare, I believe nurses have the opportunity to be truly revolutionary if we band together and support each other. This is one of the ideas that motivated me to start writing my forthcoming book, Nation of Nurses, where I discuss specific ways nurses can mobilize and revolutionize healthcare.”

He is also passionate regarding his advocacy groups: “these online communities are filled with bedside nurses who are passionate about improving the nursing and the healthcare system. Honestly, through this work, for the first time in nearly 20 years, I feel like nurses are taking back their power; and this gives me so much hope.”

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