Newark, New Jersey, Bishop Faces COVID-19 With Faith and Family

April 13, 2021

Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the COVID-19 pandemic, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.

Like many hospitalized COVID-19 patients, Loretta Smith-Johnson wasn’t able to have visitors. But the longtime church leader never felt alone during her weeks-long stay at Southern Ocean Medical Center, where team members joined the Barnegat, New Jersey, resident’s congregation and a worldwide web of others to provide overwhelming compassion and comfort during a medical ordeal that almost claimed her life.

Loretta, 63, went to Southern Ocean’s emergency room in April 2020 after developing symptoms that included fever, cough, nausea and loss of taste. Clinicians promptly tested her for COVID-19, while CT scans revealed pneumonia in both lungs. But the mother of five’s condition quickly worsened. By the time her test came back positive the next morning, her breathing had become so labored that she needed a ventilator.

“She deteriorated rapidly,” says Augustine Unuigbe, M.D., a hospitalist in Southern Ocean’s emergency room and fellow church bishop who has known Loretta since 2014. “To be honest, we had to make some serious prayer calls. People were praying all over the country for her. From a doctor’s standpoint, I wasn’t sure she was going to make it.”

Decades of Giving to Others

The incredible respect and care shown from Loretta’s community, congregation and beyond was decades in the making. As a pastor and bishop at Shekinah Glory Christian Church in Newark, New Jersey, for nearly 40 years, she provides leadership to more than 20 churches up and down the East Coast. The grandmother has fed the hungry, headed literacy programs and traveled the world digging wells, starting schools, teaching English and ministering to others in countless ways. Professional accomplishments include professorships at several New Jersey colleges, teaching elementary school and serving as a private school chief administrator.

Loretta needed every ounce of the support she had earned as she spent 11 days ventilated and unconscious. She has no memory of that period but later learned that her husband, Alexis, had been told not to expect her to live.

“Two days after I’d been admitted, my husband got that call,” she says. “He was emotional, but he got dressed. He knew he couldn’t go into the hospital, so he stood outside the ER, laid his hands on the bricks and mortar and asked God to give me strength to recover and be healed. God did just that.”

Jason Nehmad, M.D., MBA, medical director of the Hospitalist Program at Southern Ocean, oversaw Loretta’s care during her lengthy stay in intensive care and after she was finally able to regain consciousness and breathe on her own again. Profoundly weak and needing extra oxygen, Loretta still had the presence of spirit to give him a blessing every time Dr. Nehmad entered her room.

Outside, congregation members gathered to sing and pray for Loretta, bringing with them 100 bags of food to donate to Southern Ocean team members. Nurses helped Loretta view the demonstration on a tablet.

“Loretta was optimistic,” Dr. Nehmad recalls. “She had a lot of faith in the health care professionals, but at the same time, she had this high religious faith.”

Continuity of Care

Leaving Southern Ocean in a wheelchair, Loretta continued her recovery at Hackensack Meridian Subacute Rehab in Wall. With a short-term goal of returning home and cooking for her family, Loretta spent two weeks at the facility gaining strength in everything from swallowing to walking. Dr. Nehmad oversaw her rehabilitation and marveled at her progress.

“I believe the attention and quality of care I received from the professionals were a great part of the healing process,” Loretta says. “They were absolutely wonderful.”

Team members even threw a surprise party for Loretta after learning she was supposed to graduate in May with a doctoral degree in strategic leadership in global studies and recreated a special graduation ceremony. “They played the Graduation March, and I walked down the hall with my walker wearing a cap and gown,” she says. “Everyone was congratulating me and pushing me on. It was so powerful.”

To Loretta, the accolades go back to the exceptional level of care she received. Dr. Nehmad agrees the continuity of care among all departments, from the Emergency Department to the Intensive Care Unit to rehabilitation, sets the health network apart.

“The communication among physicians was amazing,” he says. “Nothing fell through the cracks. Loretta went through a lot in that month and a half, but there was always continuity among the doctors.”

After Loretta’s brush with death—and having lost several friends to COVID-19—she recognizes the fragility of life and aims now to focus on what truly matters. “I made a decision that I’m not going to be burdened by things other people choose to try to burden me with,” she says. “Anything we can do for others, let’s be faithful to do it.”

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