The coronavirus pandemic forced thousands of Prince George’s County residents including Chrystal Young-Johnson to make a choice: stay home to avoid becoming sick or risk her life to help others.
The 56-year-old from Fort Washington, who has worked half her life as a registered nurse, trained dozens of nurses in the neighboring District to administer COVID-19 vaccines to adults and children.
Besides conducting COVID-19 tests and vaccinating children as a nurse manager for Children’s School Services in the District, outside of work she’s called the “COVID ambassador” in her own neighborhood.
“I educated my neighbors about the vaccine,” Young-Johnson said. “Made sure they had masks. If there was a shot clinic, I wanted to make sure they knew where to go. Serving my community is joy.”
The Prince George’s County NAACP branch’s Women in NAACP [WIN] Committee recognized her unselfishness and sacrifice with a 2022 Woman of the Year award. The group held a virtual ceremony Sunday, March 27 with the theme “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope” for Women’s History Month.
The NAACP committee honored women like Young-Johnson who have dedicated their time, energy and souls during the ongoing pandemic whose positivity rate in Maryland now sits below 2%. Tragically, the state has recorded more than 14,000 deaths and just over one million confirmed cases.
For Young-Johnson’s work, she received a glass trophy with an inscription that included the following: “For her unselfish commitment and devotion to the service of others during the pandemic.”
The branch’s Women’s History Month subcommittee, unable to choose just one woman, selected six others with “Outstanding Woman’s Award” plaques.
Along with Young-Johnson, below are summaries on Jeniece Bailey, Dr. Rashida Cohen, Florence Druid, Susie Harris, Valerie Horne and Brenda Lea.
As part of her duties as a nurse manager for Children’s School Services, a subsidiary of Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest, Young-Johnson and others with the organization would be deployed to the U.S. Department of Health to work as contract tracers during the height of the pandemic.
When D.C. public schools reopened its doors, one of her main responsibilities would be to keep up with COVID-19 data. On the weekends, she volunteered in efforts to persuade teachers, students and their parents and other adults in the city to become vaccinated.
“It was scary. We were on the frontlines,” said Young-Johnson, who has raised two adult children who count as college graduates. “We just kept on doing what we needed to do. We must give back to help people.”
To College and Back
While studying at Stevenson University in Baltimore County, Bailey traveled almost every weekend to work as a certified emergency medical technician at the Bryans Road Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue Squad in Charles County. She will reach the four-year mark as an EMT in July.
During the midst of the pandemic, she walked inside houses to assist patients who reported breathing problems and faced diabetic shock, also providing oxygen and performing CPR. She wore full protective gear with two pairs of gloves on each hand and goggles while assisting over 300 people.
“I looked like the hazmat people. I remember putting that gear on for the first time and I was sweating,” she said. “Safety over everything is what had to be done.”
Bailey, 22, continues to work at the fire department while taking her final two classes online before graduating in May with a degree in criminal justice. She’s also an intern at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and resides with her grandmother in Prince George’s.
A Seasoned Chiropractor
Rashida Cohen enters her 20th year as a practicing chiropractor at Washington Integrative Health in Southeast where she not only helps people with back ailments but also administers COVID-19 tests.
For more than a year ago during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, about 700 people came to her office to get tested. But her work to organize COVID-19 testing extends into neighboring Prince George’s at the Glenarden Municipal Building.
Cohen, whose husband handles the “business side” at the office, has seen patients come back a second time to receive tests if they experience any symptoms or just want to make sure they can spend time with families.
One diagnosis she’s seen during the pandemic remains how multiple family members who reside in the same household contracted COVID-19 while one did not.
“What’s different with that one person? They had a stronger immune system,” said Cohen of Greenbelt. “Vitamin C, D, zinc. The natural stuff. Drink water. No drugs. No alcohol. If we take care of our bodies, our bodies take care of us.”
Druid summarizes what she’s done to maintain positive energy as a school nurse working with children at Northview Elementary School in Bowie: self-care, minding her business, dancing, solving puzzles, a Gallup coach and wellness advocate for an essential oil company called “doTERRA.”
Still, she admits when the COVID-19 pandemic affected the state and nation, “it took my breath away, then I started to breathe.”
As the school’s health advocate, she used health education and calm demeanor to help staff and parents understand the importance of vaccinations. She also limited the number of children inside the nurse’s office. During parent-teacher organization meetings on Zoom, she shared health information and provided COVID-19 data updates.
In terms of interacting with the students, she spread her arms out to show a distance hug with constant positive reinforcement including praising students for wearing their masks properly.
“You’ve got to make it fun for them – that’s the key,” said Druid, who’s taught at Northview since 2012 and resides in neighboring Anne Arundel County. “It’s an adjustment for them, too.”
Food Pantry Duty
Harris has been a “faithful” member of Paramount Baptist Church in Southeast for more than 40 years.
With her spiritual calling to serve, she asked her pastor if she could manage the church’s food pantry by herself for once a week while the church doors remained closed during the height of the pandemic.
He agreed and Harris managed the pantry from July 2020 until October 2020. Then she oversaw it on her own, again, around the Thanksgiving holidays that year.
She traveled 32 miles round trip from her home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, to serve D.C. residents frozen chicken, frozen fish, canned goods and pastries. The church later received $25 Giant gift cards to distribute to residents along with nonperishables, resources and referrals for other places in the city.
She continues to serve the church as chair of the church’s board of missions.
“This is a calling from God,” said Harris, a retired communications employee with the county’s public schools. “This is what a mission is all about. Helping and serving others.”
Nearly Five Decades of Service
Horne’s nursing experience continues totaling nearly five decades with 26 years at various hospitals in the District and about 20 years in the D.C. public school setting.
She’s worked the last eight years at Luke C. Moore alternative high school in Northeast and assisted in establishing CDC guidelines for when students returned to school.
She admits the students presented some challenges “and would try to test you” when organizing daily COVID-19 tests, wearing masks correctly and maintaining social distance. She established a daily routine for her commute to the District from Fort Washington: pack lightly and change clothes at the door when returning home.
“I didn’t have fear. I just knew if I took the right precautions that everything would be all right,” she said. “It’s an inner strength from my Lord. If I was in fear, then I would not be able to function.”
Horne’s three children wanted her to retire a few years ago but she said, “I’m not ready. I haven’t been released by the Lord, yet. I enjoy what I do.”
‘It Was Stressful‘
When D.C. public schools closed for several months in 2020, Brenda Lea found herself deployed by the D.C. Health Department to help arrange and schedule the first group of residents eligible to receive COVID-19 tests. Then she served as contact tracer to interview anyone who may have tested positive for the virus and explained how they would need to isolate themselves from other family members.
When Lea returned to her school nurse job at Langdon Elementary in Southeast, she tested about 10% of the students who returned to the building. She also conducted tests for students throughout the summer until August 2021.
The former Prince George’s resident who now lives in Howard County recalled how a large number of nurses chose to resign.
“It was stressful. There were so many lives lost,” said Lea, who served in the Air Force for seven years. “So many people lost their jobs with companies that shut down. So many people had issues with their psyche. I’ve been able to maintain my full health and well-being. I’m just thankful.”
Dr. Felecia Williams, president of Prince George’s Community College who served as guest speaker for Sunday’s virtual ceremony, praised the women for their extraordinary efforts performing daily tasks which many could not handle.
“Because of you, lives have been saved. Hope is restored in place of hopelessness. You are truly amazing,” she said. “When women support women, we all win.”