In 1948, $300 was a significant amount of money. A loaf of bread, after all, was only 14 cents at the time. A gallon of gas was just 26 cents. So for 13-year-old Loretta Johanson, cobbling together $300 to fulfill her dream of becoming a registered nurse was simply a hurdle too high to overcome.
With nursing school out of the question but a desire to help others still burning within her, Johanson shifted to Plan B: She walked into Presbyterian Hospital in her native New York City and offered to become a Red Cross candy striper—a volunteer nurse’s aide.
That was 67 years ago. And with the exception of a nine-year gap when she got married and started a family, Johanson has been volunteering with the Red Cross ever since. She has performed a lot of different duties in a number of different places in that time. Today, at age 80, she oversees the Red Cross office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Medical Center in Dayton and manages roughly 40 volunteers who have donated a remarkable 9,942 hours so far this year—arguably the largest and most efficient department in the region.
As anyone who has managed volunteers will tell you, keeping that many people engaged, trained and compliant with medical facility regulations is no easy task. But she gets it done. Take, for example, the annual flu shot. Medical facilities require all personnel have up-to-date vaccinations, and she ensures all of her volunteers have complied—a task that can require a lot of kind and gentle nagging.
But ask her volunteers and they will tell you: While she can be firm, she is also fair—and protective. When she represents the volunteers with base command, “If there’s an issue and the volunteers are right,” she says, “I will stand up for them.” When volunteers realized the information desk was not being managed after the Major in charge retired, she took their request to run the desk to Base command. They agreed, and now the Red Cross volunteers are the first point of contact to everyone who enters the hospital.
When the Veterans Administration dropped the Patient Escort and Transportation Service, which matches a patient or visitor with a volunteer to help guide them around the medical center, she stepped in and had it moved under the Red Cross. So as the Base has scaled down, she has scaled up the Red Cross’s presence.
It helps that Johanson knows both the Base and Air Force protocol, a gift she’s gained in her 46 years at Wright-Patt. She started at the Base in June 1969 as an ER volunteer. She then spent 11 years working in the dining hall at night. She’s also worked in physical therapy, and recently played a role helping that department expand its shadowing program, which allows medical students the opportunity to come to the medical center and observe for training.
In the 1990s, she helped launch the Red Cross’s role in the Welcoming Home Heroes program, which greets returning airmen. And at Thanksgiving, she and her volunteers support an initiative for non-married airmen, giving them cakes and cookies, and inviting their families to come to a special event. The Airman Cookie Drive involves the entire Base baking and gathering cookies.
One of the other things she’s learned in her years as a Red Cross volunteer is how difficult and dangerous life in the military can be. Before starting at Wright-Patt, she volunteered for a tour at Clark Air Base in the Philippines during the Vietnam War. At times the Base would be overrun with people; they would set up wards in the basement to handle the inflow of patients and stranded airmen. She would offer back and foot rubs, write letters, shop for the patients at the Base PX—whatever comfort care she could offer the wounded airmen.
“They guys never said much about what they went through,” she says. “So long as we could make them comfortable, we didn’t care.”
She also worked in the ER and staffed the casualty wards. She recalls the only casualty she attended to, a soldier who had thrown himself on a grenade to protect the men around him. He had been transferred to Clark where the doctors created a metal framework that allowed him to be covered with sheets, but not have the sheets actually contact his badly damaged body. A new medical technician came in and started to dismantle the device to gain access, and Johanson intervened, sternly forcing him to put it back together—correctly. The soldier began to improve so the doctors sent for his wife, but despite the good prognosis he died before she could get to his side.
The chaos of war was good training for the chaos of a disaster, so in addition to serving at Wright-Patt, Johanson also serves as a disaster volunteer through the Clark County Red Cross in Springfield, Ohio. She’s regularly deployed to DROs, and works on a Disaster Action Team and the Springfield FAST (first aid) team, as well as being an instructor.
Although at age 80 it is getting physically harder for her to keep up with active DAT duty—she is getting a knee replaced in mid-November and will be out of service for about a month, though she is dedicated to recovery before Christmas—she is not ruling out any activity or role in the Red Cross.
She maintains office hours at the Base on Monday and Thursday, but finds herself coming in for meetings and events on a regular basis, and it is not unusual to bring records home for data entry. She also attends most of the fairs and events on the Base, making sure the airmen are aware of the services available from the Red Cross.
Loretta has been married to husband Dave for one year longer than her continuous service with the Red Cross.
“That’s how I remember how long I have served with the Red Cross, I take my anniversary and subtract a year,” she says with a laugh. She has three children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She is looking forward to meeting the youngest this Thanksgiving when the family is coming to Ohio from Massachusetts for the holiday.
After that, it’s back to the Base. There’s still work to be done, and Johanson has no intention of leaving her post.
“I’m going to keep working until they cart me out of here,” she says.