Senior nursing student Maggie Johnson was selected recently for a prestigious research award from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.
Johnson will use the award to travel to India after graduation to continue her work with a nonprofit organization supporting health literacy and accessibility for the families of children with disabilities. With the support of the Fulbright Committee and affiliation with New Delhi Children’s Hospital and Research Center (NDCHRC), Johnson will research the challenges to access and compliance with treatments and work to create a more family-focused model for providing information and health care for children living with disabilities in India.
How did she arrive at UNC Charlotte?
After dropping out of school, Johnson sold all of her stuff and went to New Delhi. She was searching for a reset, alone in India, a place where one can go a thousand directions, but where routes aren’t always clearly defined. She arrived trying to find herself, and discovered what she was looking for by turning her gaze toward others.
As a 20-year-old business major at a western North Carolina University in 2015, Johnson was disenchanted. Her coursework didn’t interest her, and she knew a career in business wasn’t the right fit. Personal challenges were thickening the mire. So rather than slog on in the same direction, she charted a new way, and discovered a hidden passion.
“I had been curious about India since a young age, and when I decided that the path of life I was heading down in college needed some serious rerouting I chose to do so in the most different place I could think of and a place I had only ever dreamed of actually being able to visit,” Johnson said.
So off she went. Johnson didn’t have much of a plan, but hoped that she would find one by immersing herself in unfamiliarity. The first weeks in country were difficult. The deep waters of Indian culture and the endless urban sprawl of New Delhi can leave even seasoned travelers spinning in place.
“If you would have asked me in the first two weeks I was there, I would have been in tears and I would have told you I wanted to get back on the plane,” Johnson admitted.
Over time, Johnson found a place to stay and worked various odd jobs across the city. Then one day, one of those odd jobs illuminated a path to a career.
“I stopped by the daycare through the church that I was with at the time and ended up working there helping out with the kids,” she said. That daycare is where I met Sarvari.”
Johnson immediately gravitated to the five-year-old girl with the bright smile, and it would be through Sarvari that she would glimpse the realities facing so many children with disabilities in India. Sarvari has cerebral palsy (CP), a neurological disorder that affects her movement and cognitive development. For Sarvari and her family, the seriousness of a CP diagnosis is compounded by resource limitations in the community where they live and culture stigmas around disability.
“Things that we would consider common knowledge about someone with CP or someone with a physical cognitive disability, aren’t really commonly known there,” Johnson said. “They also often don’t have the equipment needed for important therapies.”
She continued to support Sarvari at the daycare for the next few months, in the process learning more about children’s health in India and her own career aspirations. Johnson remembers one of the first moments she felt the emotional impact of working with kids.
“The other children were coloring in animals but with Sarvari's limited strength, she wasn’t able to do much coloring on her own. So I took what she had colored and turned it into an origami swan. I made it fly around her. She laughed and giggled with joy. That’s when another girl came and grabbed the bird out of my hand and I thought, ‘Oh, no they will fight over this.’ Then the girl started making the bird fly around Sarvari as well and tears almost came to my eyes,” said Johnson.
Discovering a passion
“It was working with Sarvari that I realized that I wanted to be a nurse,” Johnson continued. “It came through to me that I needed to work with people in that kind of personal capacity. And I've always liked medicine, but I never really thought nursing would be a possibility for me."
Yet possibility became real for Johnson when, after applying from her temporary home in New Delhi, she received an acceptance letter from UNC Charlotte. She has spent the last two years back on campus learning the language and skills of the nursing profession, and impressing her instructors in the process.
“She consistently tries to apply things I teach in class to her population of patients and families in India and brings a rare world view to the challenges nurses face,” said Peggy MacKay, a lecturer in the School of Nursing. “Maggie is passionate, and she has a true calling to this profession.”
All the while, Johnson had been considering a return trip to New Delhi, but this time, she went bearing gifts. While researching organizations to work with during summer 2018, she discovered the New Delhi Children's Hospital and Research Center (NDCHRC). NDCHRC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing quality, affordable health care facilities to children; it’s the only organization of its kind in the country, and its services are sorely needed. India has the highest number of child deaths in the world, with an estimated 1.2 million deaths in 2015, according to NDCHRC. Johnson connected with the group’s CEO in October 2017 and was offered a role helping launch the Center for Hope and Healing, a new initiative that offers services to children with disabilities.
She knew the nonprofit would struggle to afford the therapeutic equipment needed to treat its patients—much isn’t available in India and items can be over 300 times more expensive to purchase from overseas. So Johnson set out to raise money to buy some herself, and she did it through that most timeless and grassroots of fundraising formats: the bake sale. Baking for up to eight hours most Friday nights during the academic year, Johnson would then set up shop at the Matthews, North Carolina, Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, telling her story and peddling cookies and cakes until she sold out.
And she kept selling out, over, and over, and over again. A goal of $1,000, which she once thought unattainable, was eclipsed, then doubled, until Johnson’s fundraiser netted more than $2,000.
“I got very emotional a couple of weeks in a row because there's so many kind people, and it just blew my mind with how they felt about what I was doing. And I realized really quickly that people were very passionate about things that I was also passionate about,” she said.
With the money from the bake sale and an additional $1,000 from a GoFundMe campaign, Johnson purchased dozens of therapeutic tools, including tactile stimulation equipment and toys, walkers and therapy sensory swings and educational books. She arrived in India in May 2018 with the gifts in tow. She collaborated with the team at NDCHRC through the summer to set up and open the Center for Hope and Healing, then returned for her senior year at UNC Charlotte in August.
“We are glad to have Maggie working with us, says Pratyush Kumar, founder and CEO of NDCHRC. “Her knowledge of health care and passion to serve underprivileged children is going to be of great value for our organization to meet its goals. These innovative and highly valuable tools are going to be instrumental in transforming the lives of these uniquely-abled children and they will be able to live a better life.”
During the school year, Johnson has continued to work with NDCHRC as its international relations manager. Once she completes her year of work in India through the Fulbright Program, she hopes to return UNC Charlotte for graduate school and ultimately work as a nurse practitioner in New Delhi indefinitely.
It’s an ambitious goal for the former business student who first crossed the Pacific with little in mind beyond finding something new. It’s also a reminder that you don’t always have to know your destination to be headed in the right direction.
This story includes portions of an article that appeared originally in the fall 2018 edition of the UNC Charlotte magazine.