Stands With Fist

In a threadbare basement conference room at the Tennessee Justice Center, attorney Michele Johnson sweeps a slender arm towards what she calls the “Mother’s Day Wall,” a floor-to-ceiling gallery of framed photographs — families captured in moments of relief or worry, mothers embracing kids whose faces look joyful or distant or weary. It’s a mosaic of stories, a colorful panorama of clients who’ve faced down life’s worst moments, with Johnson and her colleagues firmly in their corner.

In one picture, a small boy, flanked by his smiling mom and older siblings, flashes a puckish grin. “This is Darius,” Johnson says. Doctors diagnosed the athletic 10-year-old with brain cancer after he complained of dizziness and nausea more than a year ago, she explains. But just before his surgery, the hospital learned that Darius had lost his TennCare coverage and refused to perform the operation.

His mother Trina Parker says she felt overwhelmed and helpless after spending desperate days making hundreds of phone calls that proved futile. “It was a frantic time for my whole family,” she says. “Just a parent’s nightmare.” A social worker referred her to the Tennessee Justice Center, a nonprofit law firm that offers legal help to Tennessee families in need, focusing on patients who can’t get access to needed medical treatment.
“I think people probably assume that in America, if you really need something, it’s a matter of life or death, you’re going to get it,” Johnson says. The fact that so many patients don’t get necessary health care inspired Johnson and her colleague Gordon Bonnyman to found the Tennessee Justice Center 15 years ago.

Advocacy seemed almost preordained for Johnson. Having five older siblings honed her rhetorical skills from an early age; and when her dad suggested she’d make a good lawyer someday, she asked him what lawyers do. “They argue for people who can’t argue for themselves,” he told her.

Johnson held onto that idea as she grew up, quietly absorbing her Catholic parents’ values, practiced in deed and word. “My family took care of each other,” she says, recalling an autistic aunt who came to live with them when Johnson was a child. “It seems like a kind of natural outgrowth to start to see the world as your family.”

A petite brunette with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose, Johnson has an almost girlish appeal, modest nearly to the point of shyness, and extraordinarily polite. At first it’s hard to imagine her as Staunch Defender, standing between an often faceless and ever labyrinthine health care system and the millions of Everymen trying — in vain — to navigate it. She exudes none of the coiled outrage you might expect—she’s not the protester flinging a Molotov cocktail; she’s the one standing serenely in front of a tank, stepping quietly into its path at every turn. She says it’s not wise to underestimate a mother of three boys. “I can put my mom voice on,” she smiles, a note of warning in the green eyes.

In that mom voice, which I imagine is a masterpiece of restrained ferocity, Johnson spoke up for Darius. Within the week, TennCare reinstated his coverage, and his treatments resumed. He’s been in remission for a year now. “He’ll never play football again,” says his mother Trina Parker, her own mom voice full of pride and relief. “But he’s playing baseball and basketball. He’s doing wonderful.”

What further amazed Parker was that in the weeks after Darius’s surgery, TJC folks continued calling to check on his progress. “Just kind, sincere people there,” she says. “Dedicated to helping people that don’t have, you know, proper channels to get help. Just a wonderful thing that they do.”

As Johnson points to other photographs on the Mother’s Day Wall, the stories pour out of her, many — but not all of them — with happy endings. She tells me about Erin Brady Worsham, an ALS patient and artist who nearly lost her house to foreclosure after last year’s floods. While banking isn’t the Center’s specialty, they launched into problem-solving mode all the same. TJC put out a desperate call to friends and family to raise the $12,000 it would take to stop the foreclosure. They raised more than $140,000 and created a trust to protect the Worshams’ house. “Michele Johnson is a woman of action,” says Worsham.

“Goodness went viral,” shrugs Johnson, by way of explanation. If that’s the case, then Johnson’s a carrier of that virus, a particularly infectious strain, apparently.
Photo by Jude Ferrara


dvhowe's picture

Great article about a super terrific advocate who is also my friend. I remember the first time I met Michele in the earliest days of TJC. I worried that she was so young and sweet that she wouldn't have the chops to stand in the breach and speak truth to power. Her strength is her moral compass so securely set to do right by those on whose behalf she advocates. That along with a vibrant and tenacious spirit and a keen analytical mind make her a formidable force. The amazing thing is, she is still sweet with an easy smile that comforts and inspires hope.

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