November 6, 2020

Johnny Wedderburn’s positivity, kindness and innovation help patients become independent again

“He cares for the entire person and doesn’t just perform a job.”

Johnny Wedderburn poses for a portrait at the Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital Tuesday, October 13, 2020 in Lebanon, Tennessee. Wedderburn is a Credo Award winner.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

As an occupational therapist, Johnny Wedderburn is a problem-solver, doing whatever it takes to help a patient become independent again.

He has helped rehabilitate the injured and ailing bodies of countless patients at Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital for the past decade. His goal is to help patients regain their prior level of functioning by rehabilitating their bodies, helping to adapt their activities of daily living and/or helping them plan modifications to their home environments so they can return safely to home.

Sometimes that involves helping a patient who has lost functional use of one arm after a stroke learn how to tie a shoe with only one hand. Sometimes it’s suggesting that a patient with Parkinson’s disease use a weighted utensil when eating to slow tremors in a hand, helping to guide the utensil to the mouth more easily. He also helps ease a patient’s pain using methods other than medication for pain relief.

But before he rehabilitates, he establishes a rapport. “It’s important that our patients know they are being treated as a person, not a number,” Wedderburn said.

“My biggest priority as a representative of Vanderbilt is making sure a patient feels seen for who they are. I want them to feel human and that they’re cared about. Before I can get anywhere near what I am trained to do as an OT, I need to establish a relationship,” he said.

“Even if I have them only for a few days, I have to earn their trust and build on it before they feel comfortable going on to other parts of their care that may be fearful to them. I try to find that one little thing I can do to create a bond so the patient can feel ‘this person sees me and understands me.’”

For his unwavering dedication to his job and his ability to connect with patients, Wedderburn received a Credo Award at the October Leadership Assembly, which was held virtually.

In his nomination, Wedderburn’s colleagues describe him as an “exceptional” employee with “genuine character and professionalism” and a “sweet and calming spirit that infiltrates the environment where ever he is.”

“He is loved by all patients for his gentle and caring nature,” one nominator wrote. “He cares for the entire person and doesn’t just perform a job,” said another.

Wedderburn has been in Wilson County so long that he often has repeat customers. He recalls being sent by a physician to evaluate a woman in the hospital. He didn’t initially recognize her when he entered her room to perform an assessment. She remembered him and his kindness.

During a therapy session three years earlier, the woman mentioned she was craving strawberries. It just happened that Wedderburn’s mother had given him some fresh strawberries that morning. He gave them to his patient. And three years later, she remembered.

“The connection I had with her had nothing to do with the therapy. With her, it was that she wanted strawberries and someone took the time to get them for her.”

Wedderburn recalls a recent patient recovering from a hospitalization for COVID-19.

“These patients are isolated, scared, watching the news and they’re nervous. They hear about the amount of people who have passed away or are suffering from this condition. They’re going through a lot. When I work with these patients, I tell them, ‘you are going to beat this.’ They need all the positivity they can get.”

The patient said his feet were bothering him, so Wedderburn filled pans used for sponge baths with warm, soapy water and helped him wash his feet.

A few days later, Wedderburn stopped to check on the man and found he had been discharged. But he had left a gift for Wedderburn – his pink shirt. The nurse on duty told Wedderburn that the patient wanted him to have his shirt, that Wedderburn washing his feet was like something Jesus would have done, and that he felt God’s presence in him.

“At first I thought ‘there’s no way I’m going to take this man’s shirt. I’ll find a way to get it back to him,’ but then I thought about it. This patient really wanted to say thank you and all he possessed at that time was the shirt he was planning to wear when he left our facility. I changed my tune and said, ‘Johnny, for once, accept. You take that shirt and you wear it in his honor.’ It was important for him to give what he could, and it was important for me to accept his kind way of showing his appreciation.”

In Wedderburn’s nomination, a colleague remembered responding to a rapid response at the hospital. When she ran into the room, Wedderburn was already there, “at the head of the bed with a wet washcloth on the patient’s brow, calming her down…I feel like no matter what the nurses and doctors were doing in that room that day, if Johnny wasn’t at the head of the bed comforting her, there would have been a much worse outcome. Johnny makes everyone feel like they are the only priority he has.”

If you are a VUMC employee, you can nominate a colleague for an Elevate Credo Award, Five Pillar Leader Award, or Team Award. Visit the Elevate website to fill out a nomination formEmployees demonstrate credo behaviors when: they make those they serve the highest priority; respect privacy and confidentiality; communicate effectively; conduct themselves professionally; have a sense of ownership; and are committed to their colleagues. Elevate award nominations are accepted year-round. If a nomination is received after the cut off for an award selection period, the nomination will be considered for the next period. VUMC Voice will post stories on each of the award winners in the weeks following their announcement.