NICU Graduate Beats Odds, Heads to Nursing School
Aug 28, 2023
Sutter Health
Celena Johnson with members of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) Team

by Kathy Engle, Vitals contributor

Celena Johnson appears to be a typical 20-year-old working hard to achieve a big dream. She attended California State University, East Bay full time, held down multiple internships and volunteered in her community, all with the goal of becoming a nurse. And this fall, she is set to embark on her nursing journey at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in Baltimore.

But there is something truly remarkable about both Johnson and her career ambition: Born 12 weeks early with a host of life-threatening health issues, she almost didn’t make it out of Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center neonatal intensive care unit.

“I was born early at 2 pounds, 1 ounce to a mother who had been using drugs and alcohol throughout her pregnancy,” Johnson says. “My neonatal team didn’t think I would survive, but through excellent care, blessings and prayer, I made it.”

This early-in-life experience made a profound impact on Johnson —and it’s why she is passionate about not only a career in nursing but also working at the very same NICU that saved her life.

Beating the Odds

Born with fetal alcohol syndrome, swelling of the brain and many other complications, Johnson faced a unique set of challenges. Her lungs and other organs were not fully developed, requiring her to spend the first six months of her life in the Alta Bates Summit NICU, which is equipped to help babies like Johnson survive those early weeks and care for them until they can be discharged.

Once she was healthy enough, she was released directly to her foster mother. Still, due the severity of her condition at birth, the doctors were unsure of Johnson’s prognosis.

“They told my foster mother that I might not be able to walk or talk,” she says. Johnson spent many years in speech and physical therapy and made huge strides in her recovery, disproving her doctors’ fears about the limitations that might hinder her. Though she has faced many physical and emotional obstacles throughout her life, Johnson has thrived, and she credits these experiences with shaping her into the ambitious young woman she is today.

A NICU Graduate’s Homecoming

Johnson has always felt a special connection to Alta Bates Summit, but she hadn’t been back since she was 6 months old. Then last summer, her mentor, Davida Scott, an instructor at the Hayward Adult School, surprised her by setting up a tour of the NICU.

“I wanted Celena to see where she came from and where she is going,” Scott says. “The NICU team—including doctors and nurses who cared for her 20 years ago—all took the time to give her a personalized tour. It showed the love Alta Bates Summit has for its patients.”

Celena Johnson, in black cap and gown, graduated from California State University East Bay in 2022

Celena Johnson graduated from California State University East Bay and will enter nursing school at Johns Hopkins University this fall.

While at the NICU, Johnson felt an instant connection to the babies. “An average person looking at a child that small may think, that baby is not going to survive,” she says. “But with me, it’s different. I just look at them and think, you’re going to be as big as me one day. I have hope for all those little babies. They are going to thrive and blossom—they just need to keep going.”

Johnson also appreciated meeting some of the physicians and nurses who cared for her as an infant.

“They have a special place in my heart,” she says. “I lost my birth family, so they are my hospital family, and I’m grateful for them. They were motivated to do everything they could to make sure I was stable and able to make it home.”

For NICU medical director Dr. Alex Espinoza who was there when Johnson was a patient, seeing her as a young adult was a validation of the hard work and difficult decisions he and his team are faced with daily.

“When we get an opportunity to have a first-person experience like we did with Johnson, it has a powerful impact,” Dr. Espinoza says. “We always want to think we are doing the right thing and that the outcomes will be positive for the babies and their families.

A Voice for Babies

Johnson was not only interested in seeing the place where her life began—she also wanted to see where she is headed. Since she was little, she has wanted to be a NICU nurse at Alta Bates Summit.

Also inspiring Johnson’s career goal is her potential to positively impact the legacy of her birth parents, whom she recently learned have passed away.

“Both of my parents ended up dying due to alcohol and drug use, so I never had the opportunity to meet them,” she says. “I have accepted that I won’t get to meet them, and I’m using that as a motivator to keep going.”

“Working in the NICU will give me the opportunity to have a voice for those babies who can’t speak for themselves,” Johnson says. “I will be able to talk to their families while they are going through these challenges, and I can tell them to look at me. I can tell them that I overcame so much at a young age, so they can have hope for their child.”

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