University City

Nonprofit founder helps cancer patients

Myra Johnston, 49, fell into her life’s calling by chance.

Johnston, founder of Health Guidance Center, a nonprofit that “strengthens patients and their families by providing strong support during difficult health challenges,” was a business major at Carson Newman College in Tennessee when she took an elective course in sociology during her senior year.

The course was on death and dying, and Johnston, who went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee, knew what she was meant to do with the rest of her life.

She joined the social work staff at Presbyterian Hospital in 1987 and became the oncology social worker two years later.

For 10 years, Johnston talked to anyone who would listen about her vision for “a place away from the hospital where people could come to get support.”

One person who listened and joined forces with her was Rex Welton, a well-connected Charlotte native and businessman, who told her he “didn’t know anyone in Charlotte not touched by cancer in some way.”

Through Welton’s fundraising efforts, and in partnership with Presbyterian Hospital, the Buddy Kemp Caring House opened in July 1999.

“It is a beautiful experience to have something like that in your head and see it come to life,” said Johnston.

She enjoyed over seven years of seeing her dream of “offering support groups, counseling services, educational programs and a resource library for individuals of all ages diagnosed with cancer and their families and friends” come true.

In August 2006, however, Johnston moved on. “I had another vision,” she said. “Something new grew in my heart.”

That new vision involved filling another hole Johnston saw in cancer care: hand-holding during diagnosis and getting to know patients and their families.

Her new nonprofit, Heath Guidance Center, is independent of Presbyterian Hospital or any other medical entity, allowing Johnston and her staff of 12 volunteers to provide their services to more than 100 families throughout the Carolinas.

Operating on an annual budget of $54,000 that comes exclusively from donations, volunteers from Health Guidance Center accompany patients to medical appointments, help connect them with doctors and hospitals and provide other support – spiritual, emotional and logistical – the patient and family needs.

“When we enter their lives, we give them hope,” Johnston says of the patients and families referred to her from various outlets. “We bring peace and calm in the midst of the storm.”

Johnston, who lives in the University City area, brings more than 20 years of oncology social work experience to her role as chief hand-holder, but she recently added personal experience to her empathetic approach.

In May 2009, Johnston, a divorced mother of three – James, 16, Molly, 14, and Abby, 13 – was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I had access to the best care because I knew whom to call and I understood the system,” she said.

Johnston’s experience reinforced her conviction that getting care “should be this easy and smooth for everyone.”

She said everyone deserves the care and support she received. “It strengthened my commitment to why Health Guidance Center exists,” she said.