The Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto has honoured Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO) founder, Lillie Johnson, with a Distinguished Alumnus Award for her lifelong commitment to health care and sickle cell advocacy.
Johnson, 89, studied part-time at the university’s nursing school in the 1960s.
“My dream was always to be a nurse,” said Johnson. “When you have a dream, you keep focused…Nursing is the best profession out there.”
Trained as a health care professional in her native Jamaica and in Scotland, Johnson fulfilled her life’s calling in Ontario – her home for the past 52 years – as a public health nurse.
The first Black director of public health for Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District, Johnson’s sustained passion as a sickle cell advocate resulted in the province’s Ministry of Health and Long Term Care including sickle cell disease on the list of 28 genetic diseases for universal newborn screening in 2005.
She founded the SCAO in 1981, initially conducting its work from her home. For the past three decades, the octogenarian has dedicated most of her life to the education of “sicklers” and their families, health practitioners, policy makers, educators and government about the symptoms and implications of the hereditary disorder that affects mostly people of colour.
Johnson came to Canada in 1960 to work for the Canadian Red Cross, which was looking for nurses for Ontario outposts. She was assigned to Red Lake which is nearly 100 kilometres from the Manitoba border. On arriving in Toronto, she was able to exchange that posting for one at St. Joseph’s Hospital.
She spent time at The Hospital for Sick Children where she pursued pediatric studies for her provincial registered nurses accreditation and also took a summer course in genetics that exposed her to sickle cell disease and its effects.
After retiring in 1988, she volunteered with Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) in Jamaica, providing treatment and health information to residents in poor and disadvantaged communities. She later served on the CUSO advisory committee when she came back to Canada.
Last January, Johnson received the Order of Ontario for her extensive contributions to health care in the province.
The Distinguished Alumnus Award acknowledges a Lawrence Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing graduate with outstanding achievements, noteworthy activity that has been recognized in their field, and contributions to the health system through patient care, basic and clinical research or health care-oriented services.
Johnson was one of three winners of this year’s Distinguished Alumnus Awards.
“These three recipients have demonstrated the highest principles of the health care professions and serve as a role model for current and future health care professionals,” the university said in a release.
The Lawrence Bloomberg Faulty of Nursing – comprising Canada’s top nurse researchers and educators whose work is making a major contribution to knowledge, health policy and future practice – is committed to ensuring that its students have the brightest quality experience on campus.