‘She Was Perfect in That Role’

Published on

Children's View

By Helen Corning

She Was Perfect in That Role - Colena Johnson, DVM, and Calvin Johnson, MD Colena Johnson, DVM, and Calvin Johnson, MD, hold a photo of their mother, Vera Barksdale Johnson, MSS, as a young woman. It was an event filled with memories of the past and promise for the future. In September 2022, family, friends and former colleagues, along with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia staff who had only heard of Vera Barksdale Johnson, MSS, gathered at the hospital to remember this remarkable woman — and to celebrate a special gift in honor of her legacy.

In 1982, Vera broke new ground, becoming CHOP’s first full-time social worker dedicated to the Emergency Department (ED). Now, 40 years later, Vera’s children, Calvin Johnson, MD, and Colena Johnson, DVM, have established a fund in their mother’s name to support the work that was her passion.

A groundbreaker from the start

She Was Perfect in That Role - Vera Vera pictured in family photographs. Vera grew up in North Philadelphia, in an era when opportunities for women of color were limited. In the 1940s, she entered Temple University to study sociology. Caring, empathetic and resourceful, she was naturally drawn to a career in social work. Upon graduation, she excelled in several social work positions in Philadelphia before enrolling at Bryn Mawr College to earn her master’s degree. She also married and started a family.

Just a few years later, Vera made another courageous choice: She stepped away from a growing and satisfying career and, for the next 12 years, devoted herself to full-time parenting of her two children.

“She was always there for us,” Colena remembers. Calvin recalls both his mother and father teaching, through their own examples, resilience, perseverance and social responsibility. “Service was an expectation — we saw it in action,” he says.

A career renewed

She Was Perfect in That Role - Vera As her children reached their teen years, Vera felt a calling to return to the work she so loved. Meanwhile, the stars were aligning at CHOP.

Stephen Ludwig, MD, then Director of the Emergency Department, had been advocating for a social worker to join his team. Knowing how invaluable social work support was for families in the hospital’s inpatient units, Ludwig felt certain the role would be equally meaningful for parents dealing with the crises that bring children to the ED.

By 1982, CHOP’s first full-time Emergency Department social work position was approved — and Vera applied for it.

Families first

“She was perfect in that role,” recalls Ludwig, who is now Senior Adviser for Medical Education at CHOP. “Her therapy was one of love and acceptance. She would wrap her arms around a parent in distress, console her and then work out a plan to help.”

Vera was particularly motivated by the inequities experienced by children of color in West Philadelphia. Beloved for her nurturing presence, she used her skills to guide countless families to practical resources for ongoing support. “It was a great advance for the ED,” says Ludwig.

Vera spent just three years at CHOP — she left when the family relocated for her husband’s work — but her impact has lasted far longer. “We all knew how important CHOP was to her,” says Colena. “She talked about Children’s Hospital for the rest of her life.”

After Vera’s death in May 2022, Calvin and Colena pondered how to make sure her legacy wasn’t lost. Appropriately, they came up with an idea for another first.

The Vera Barksdale Johnson, MSS, Fund supports education for ED social workers, with a special emphasis on work that benefits the most vulnerable children and families in West Philadelphia. The goal, says Calvin, is “to bring the latest tools and innovations to serve people in environments where racial and economic disparities have a real impact on health.”

A legacy lives on

Today, approximately 30 of CHOP’s 200 social workers are dedicated to the ED. As Colena observes: “The needs haven’t changed — in fact, they’ve expanded.” Now, the social work team will have new resources to help them support families whose need is greatest. Just as Vera Barksdale Johnson would have wished.

To support the vital services of social workers in the Emergency Department with a gift to the Vera Barksdale Johnson, MSS, Fund, please contact Melissa DeFreece at defreecem@chop.edu.