May 6-12, 2022 is National Nurses Week. In honor of this, The Sacramento OBSERVER has published a special commemorative edition titled “A Culture Of Care,” recognizing the work of just a few of these health heroes.


By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Charlene Johnson is helping to change the face of leadership and Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento. She serves as manager of perinatal services. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

Their work can be chaotic and stressful, yet they are expected to provide service with a constant smile. As manager of perinatal services at Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento, Charlene Johnson is equipping her staff with tools to get beyond the demands of the job. She’s nursing them back to health.

Johnson’s journey into nursing started in the military. She joined the U.S. Army at 17 because there was no money for college. The army allowed her to move from Cleveland to California. She was stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, working at its Letterman Army Medical Center. 

“I worked in a pediatric unit and I absolutely fell in love with the kids and taking care of the kids,” Johnson shared. “I was what they call a medic, which is similar to a LVN (licensed vocational nurse).” While the military opportunity fueled a passion for nursing, the spark had already been ignited by seeing her mother work as an LVN in the past.

“I would see her put on her little white dress and she would go and take care of patients, and she did a lot of home care type work, and I always watched her do that.”

After leaving the army, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco. Today she has 38 years of experience and expertise in nursing.

Johnson has worked for Kaiser Permanente for 20 years and has been in leadership for the last 10. As a manager she supervises six assistant nurse managers and 230 staff members.

“We deliver exceptional care to our mommies, our new babies, our future princesses and future business owners,” she said. “We really take heart to provide our patients with an experience that they’ll never forget. That is a special moment in their life, birth.”

Johnson said 90% of the time, the work is enjoyable. There are moments, of course, when there are challenges.

“Sometimes people lose babies and things like that, but the wonderful thing about nursing is, you get an opportunity to be in the moment with that particular patient, to help them through some of the toughest times in their life.

“You are there with that person that you’re coaching and you’re caring for and embracing and you’re crying with them. Sometimes you’re celebrating with them. It’s such a connection of humanity when you’re a nurse because you get to go heart to heart, human to human with the person.”

Nurses often spend more time with patients than their doctors do. In the birthing space, the focus is typically on parents bonding with their bundles of joy, but the connections nurses create with those families can also be strong. 

“We’ve gotten comments from our patients that they couldn’t have done it without my nursing staff. Even when it’s really tough, or maybe the delivery didn’t go as expected, to have that support from their nurse is pretty amazing. And they’re there, 24/7. There’s the ups and the downs. Our nurses are total champions and they are right there at the point of care, giving the parents exactly the experience that they really want,” she said.

Being in management, Johnson doesn’t interact directly with patients the way she used to. She’s still looking out for them, though, by keeping her team motivated and well in order to help aid in the well being of those they care for.

Nursing can be stressful. Johnson is a certified HeartMath trainer and incorporates mental health techniques at every opportunity. 

“I love facilitating meetings,” she said. “I inserted (HeartMath) into my huddles, I inserted it into education and everything to teach the staff how to be more resilient, especially during a crisis. That’s the key: if you can get people to build their resilience, then when the tough times come, they’ll be able to actually respond vs. reacting to the challenges that are going on.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as taking three deep breaths in between patients. 

“It’s about giving yourself the capacity to be fully authentically present with the next person,” Johnson said.

It’s about teaching nurses the skills and tools to, as she said it, “intelligently manage their energy.”

“That’s a big thing. When you go into one room you might be having a really challenging time, but then you’ve got to go to the next one and you want to be able to go into the next room really authentically and totally into whatever the patient needs you to do vs. carrying your baggage over to the next room.” 

Mindful Of The Care

Five women can walk into the hospital at the same time, in various stages of delivery. It’s a fast-paced environment. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Johnson gives her nurses mindfulness practices to keep in their “arsenal” and that they can use in to deal.

“It seems so simple, but it’s so critical for us to know what we’re doing,” Johnson said. “We take care of ourselves when we can pause for a moment and breathe before we go to the next thing instead of just rushing through. We stabilize our staff, we build more capacity to be able to handle whatever it is that you’re confronted with at the time.”

The work is tough, but there are times that reaffirm why she became a nurse in the first place.

“A good day for me is to be able to walk in undisturbed composure,” Johnson shared. “That’s my brand. I’m setting an intention to go throughout my day, not being disturbed by all of the things that are going to go on, because I know that there’s going to be a lot of things that are happening that may be chaotic, but I balance myself.”

She counts building a cohesive team and impacting others as successes.

“That’s a goal every day, to make sure that I make a difference in somebody’s life,” she said. “It’s either a patient, a family member, a staff member, a leader – it’s someone in my facility that I actually get to make a difference with, speaking words of life into them or encouragement or anything like that.”

Johnson also encourages others seeking leadership roles at Kaiser Permanente. She’d like to see others who look like her do well.

Charlene Johnson calls herself a transformational coach. Johnson seeks opportunities to create content to help individuals be better people. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER.

“We have a lot of diversity, but we don’t have, I wouldn’t say, a lot of Black nursing leaders necessarily. I think that’s the area of growth and opportunity that we have. On my team right now there are three African American leaders, which is pretty amazing. Over the years, we have grown and we are growing more. I do see a change as far as there’s more African American leaders being added.

“I would always like to see more. I think the challenge that we face with nursing in particular, is just having the money to go to school. Just like me, I didn’t have the money to go to school. I didn’t do well enough to have a scholarship.”

More people would go into nursing, Black children in particular, if they had the finances. “I would love to see more African Americans. It is definitely a profession that has heart. It has purpose. It has meaning. It is your reason to wake up in the morning, being able to touch another person’s life,” she shared.

Johnson loves her job and hopes to advance even further.

“If I could create a position for myself right now, I would focus in on the clinician, the nurse, the doctor, the tech at the bedside and I would create content that would help them to be more resilient, to discover their brilliance, to maintain why they came into the profession. There’s opportunity there for us to pour more into our staff and to give them tools to be more resilient. you have to learn how to be more resilient, because these times are not going to change,” she said.

Culturally competent care leads to better outcomes, she said.

“We serve a very diverse patient clientele. My goal as a leader is to make sure that the staff has the resources that they need,” Johnson said.

She points to state law, Senate Bill 464, the California Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act, and a three-part training series that all perinatal NCH nurses must take that deals with unconscious bias.

“Dealing with Black moms, serving Black moms, it’s a very powerful, phenomenal education series that everybody had to go through, to raise awareness that there is a disparity here when we’re treating Black moms and this is what we’re going to do to mitigate it, we’re going to give you guys the tools and the resources to make sure we’re being more self-aware and we’re being more intentional about caring for diverse populations. I think Kaiser Permanente is doing a really great job at providing the education that’s needed so that our staff can function better.

“We’re on a great path to some transformation and some change and that I truly feel like our patients are going to see the difference, if they haven’t already,” Johnson said. 

She’s also transforming herself. “If the caregiver can transform first, then they will transform the systems that they work in,” she said.

Johnson earned her master’s degree in December. She’s also proud of an education series she created and piloted.

“I call it the Champ Experience and it is cultural humility and mindfulness practices. It also invites us to have very tough discussions about bias and about times that we’ve felt bias and we did something about it and times when we didn’t do anything about it. It was really a transformative process.

“I believe it resulted in better patient care because the staff was able to look at people more openly and be OK with other people’s perspectives when it’s different from theirs.”

Johnson hopes to share the training with more staff members, other Kaiser Permanente sets and beyond. 

Down Time

Decompressing is critical for nurses in high-stress settings.

“It’s definitely a challenge to leave it at work, especially at the managerial level,” Johnson said. I just really made it up in my mind that I can’t get everything done today, I’m going to move beyond that. And then I like to work on things that really inspire me, things that really just fill my cup.”

She’s full to the brim with service to a youth leadership group and another that helps women find their voices and become better public speakers. She also has written two books, due out in June. The books are a “gift to herself,” as the month will mark 31 years in the nursing field. The first published will be “Loving Beyond.”

“When I was a nursing student, I was taking care of a patient and it was really one of the most horrible experiences I had because the person called me the n-word. I still had to love beyond and care for her as if she didn’t say anything,” Johnson explained.

“I think that over the years, I’ve totally developed the capacity to love beyond so that we can still continue to do the work because we do what we have to do as nurses. You’re being degraded, you’re being yelled at and you have to learn how to navigate that, so that you can still provide the best care that you can offer.”

Johnson hopes the book will encourage and spread her mindset.

“I’m daring to dream that we would have a better world if we could love beyond.”