When every second counts

By Donna Lampkin Stephens

A long and winding road led Alicia Johnson to her position as a medic for Saline County Pafford EMS, and at 40, she is finally where she wants to be. A mother at 20, the Conway resident dropped out of college twice. Among other challenges, she’s dealt with domestic violence, family illness and a breast cancer diagnosis in the midst of her medic training.

But the job is worth it.

“Alicia fought through cancer to be a medic to help people. She found healing and grace in helping others.” — David Chreene, the operations manager for Pafford Medical Services in Saline County

“It’s given me healing in my own life,” she said. “From the time I was a teenager, I always said when I’m old and wrinkled and look back on my life, I want to know that I left this place with a little more love than when I got there. This is the beginning of that. I hope I’m an inspiration.” A self-described “military brat,” born in Japan and having lived in Italy, Johnson moved with her family to Jacksonville in 1995. Out of North Pulaski High School, she attended Pulaski Tech before finding out she was pregnant.

Years later, by then with four children, she studied pre-pharmacy at the University of Central Arkansas. “I had a crossroads,” she said. “I was separated, a full-time student with four children, no job and no way to pay my bills. I reflected on my life and what I wanted to do with it. I started searching my soul. My entire life, I’d cared for people. It is who I am as a person. I find happiness in doing for others.”

So she took a job as a patient care technician at the then-new Baptist Health in Conway. “I never really realized that my dreams could actually be attainable,” she said. “I picked up shifts at big Baptist in Little Rock, and that’s where I fell in love with emergency medicine. I tell people now, ‘I don’t want you to get hurt; I just want to be there when you do.’”

She has held the hands of patients dying alone and listened to their life stories. “What better way to learn about life and love and family?” she said. “I was 35, and I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

She earned her EMT license from University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton and then applied to Pulaski Tech for her associate in Emergency Medical Services and a paramedic license. During her studies, she contracted COVID-19; her mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, and her own diagnosis came in October 2021. In fact, she, her mother and three of her aunts were breast cancer patients simultaneously.

“(The diagnosis) broke my heart, took the life out of me, because I was working so hard, trying to stay strong,” she said. “It was a very trying and dark time. It was so important to me that if I wasn’t going to be in this world, that I showed my kids I fought until the end and that all the hard work was still worth it.” She endured 16 weeks of chemotherapy followed by radiation, and she is now in remission. She was able to get a one-year deferment on her medic program and passed her licensing exams in the spring of 2023. Her first paramedic job was at Arkansas Children’s Hospital; she came to Pafford in November 2023.

Her manager, David Chreene, said Johnson had found healing and grace in helping others. “Her story is filled with a calling to help others when, at a point in her life, she wasn’t sure she was going to be able to help herself,” said Chreene, the operations manager for Pafford Medical Services in Saline County.

Johnson said she wants to assist those who feel helpless when they call 911. “I want to be that light, that grace, that shining impact,” she said. “If I can give somebody a little love and comfort and healing before I send them to the hospital, then my job is done.”

As a Black and Hispanic woman, she also hopes to be a role model. “Little children who look like me can say, ‘Hey, that’s what I want to do.’” All the trials of her life enable her to meet her patients with empathy rather than sympathy. “I’ve picked up cancer patients in extreme pain, and I show them my port scar and tell them, ‘I believe you; I know you’re hurting; I know how alone you feel even though you’re surrounded by people who love you,’” she said. “I’m able to relate to them.”

And yes, she is an inspiration.

Donna Stephens