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Giving Thanks ... with Empathy and Hope

Man and woman talking

Patricia (PJ) Johnson and Army Veteran Teddy Rosario

By Claudie Benjamin, Public Affairs Specialist, VA New York Harbor Healthcare System
Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Patricia Johnson is helping to provide a few friends with a Thanksgiving dinner. About 110 of them, actually, all Veterans for whom she says, “We can’t do enough.”

The annual dinner at the NY Harbor Health Care System Mental Health Clinic is scheduled the day before Thanksgiving. As Johnson, known as “PJ” to her many friends, puts it, “We are thankful for the many freedoms these Veterans have given us. When I was in college, I could go dancing but these guys were in foxholes. I am just so thankful I can now do something for them.”

A lot of Veterans who will be at the Thanksgiving dinner are also very thankful for PJ. Here’s why.

When asked what skills are most useful in the Manhattan Psychosocial Clubhouse, Patricia Johnson responds by saying "empathy and hope."

Johnson, who coordinates the activities for the Clubhouse, is noted for her upbeat, poetic and bohemian artistic spirit. She is proud to have worked at VA for a number of years and is happy to have found her niche in coordinating the activities of the Clubhouse since the beginning of the program in 1993.

A few years ago, Johnson was run over by a car while undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. A broken pelvis and other serious injuries required nine months of rehabilitation in a nursing home. The experience strengthened her awareness of the importance of empathy and hope in recovery from physical and emotional trauma.

She welcomes all Veterans into the Clubhouse and is especially sensitive to those who may be struggling to just get through the day. Throughout her recovery, she would receive “visits” in the form of weekly phone calls from Veterans at the Clubhouse, encouraging her to recover and come back quickly.

“I came back with Access-a-Ride and a walker,” she says. Today, thanks to physical therapy and a very positive attitude, PJ literally does a hop, skip and jump to demonstrate her full recovery.

“PJ is definitely the Clubhouse.”

“Knowing someone was depending on me was the big impetus to get well.” She says she never forgets how powerful the message of empathy and hope from others can be when you are not feeling well and barely getting by.

Johnson’s devotion to her work with Veterans and their devotion to her is unmistakable and very moving. “Treat Veterans like you would want your family to be treated and then we can’t go wrong” is how she expresses her core values relating to interactions with Veterans, whether it’s giving Veterans the chance to express themselves by teaching them the art of wood burning, listening to them vent frustrations, or just kidding around and encouraging laughter.

Teddy Rosario, an Army Veteran who has known PJ since 1987 when the Clubhouse opened, says, “PJ is definitely the Clubhouse. Without her, we would have no mother.”

The New York Harbor Manhattan Clubhouse is a mental health recovery oriented space in the Mental Health Outpatient Clinic that invites Veterans to socialize, learn new skills and connect with other Veterans. The Clubhouse provides activities that promote mental health recovery and transition back to the community in an environment that respects the unique richness of the Veterans experiences.

Veterans are offered an opportunity to take part in peer support services, structured activities and a safe place to socialize. The Clubhouse partners with Volunteer Services to provide opportunities for community organizations and services wanting to show their appreciation to our Veterans by hosting music performances, holiday luncheons and many other activities meaningful to our Veterans.

This year, Johnson’s commitment to Veterans and her remarkable devotion to supporting their feelings of wellbeing were formally acknowledged when VA New York Harbor Healthcare System Director Martina Parauda recognized her as a 2014 recipient of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs “Hands and Heart Award.”

“You made the change because you were ready.”

The award recognizes a VA employee at each medical facility whose characteristics best exemplify the provision of emotional support, help and guidance to patients during the past year.

Sister James, a Cabrini Sisters nun, agrees with the recognition. “PJ was very welcoming to me and supportive and open to my suggestions. She shows by her own actions how to be supportive. She is very compassionate and always has the time.”

Many Veterans in the New York City area are also very thankful for Sister James. She has volunteered for more than five years assisting in many kinds of demanding activities such as working with VA staff to host holiday meals for dozens of Veterans.

“It has been wonderful working at the Clubhouse. I enjoy working with the Veterans and with the other volunteers. I thought I was helping them, but they’ve given more to me. They are wonderful, humble, loving people. My heart goes out to the men and women Veterans,” says Sister James, who is now recovering from an illness.

Reflecting on the award Johnson says “It’s like the Stanley Cup. I have it for a year and then have to give it back.”

But her greatest moments of satisfaction are ongoing. “Patients tell me the difference I’ve made in their lives. They come back saying, ‘I’m clean ten years because of you,’ or, ‘I got my life together because of you.’ I tell them you made the change because you were ready.”