By Patsy Weiler, For The Daily News Journal
MURFREESBORO — Johnnie Mae Phillips rarely sleeps late.
On most mornings, the buzzing of her trusty alarm clock summons her to consciousness at 3:30.
In what may be one of the best understatements ever, Phillips, talking about her early-bird lifestyle, said, “I’ve just never been much of a night owl. Usually, I’m in bed by 7 p.m.”
Before the majority of people have turned over in their sleep, the spry 78-year-old is exercising on an AeroPilates machine she bought on QVC, doing her regular workout at home.
After dressing in her blue scrubs, she enjoys a fresh, hot cup of black coffee and a Nature Valley blueberry breakfast biscuit before heading out the door to her job as a pre-operative nurse four days a week at the Murfreesboro Medical Clinic SurgiCenter, arriving before sunrise.
Driving to work in her vintage, red Cadillac Seville, Phillips is accompanied by two constant companions: her love of nursing and a deep, personal faith.
“I guess I’ve always been a caregiver,” she said. “Growing up, I was one of seven kids on a sharecropper’s farm. We would find a bird with a broken wing and try to fix it. I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”
During her predawn commute, the grandmother of four and great-grandmother of two says she talks to God.
“Some people have a prayer closet. I have a prayer car,” Phillips said with a chuckle. “I cross the bridge on Medical Center Parkway and say, ‘God, guide and lead so that everyone that sees me today will see your love. You be in control and let me walk in your footsteps.’ And, He always does.”
Phillips skillfully administers calming elixirs of kindness and compassion to those in her care, according to her coworkers.
“Johnnie is like a good dose of medicine to her patients and she always has just the perfect words for them,” said Sandy Gordon, registered nurse and SurgiCenter director. “She seems to have a special talent of knowing just what to say or sometimes when to say nothing at all. She takes the time to listen to people.”
Although Phillips has been a nurse for nearly 50 years, achieving her professional goal took fortitude. She refused to let her dream die even after she married, had children, entered her 30s and was working at the former Chromalox factory.
“When I first graduated from Holloway High School, I didn’t have the money to go to school,” she said. “I had been trying to get into the practical nursing program the old Rutherford Hospital offered.
"When I was accepted in the early 1970s, I thought this is my chance, I’m finally going. I never gave up. God said, ‘This is your time.’ I worked two days a week at the hospital while I was in school.”
She graduated as a certified practical nurse, but her CPN designation could easily stand for "certified people nurturer."
“I haven’t met a patient yet I didn’t love. Sometimes you just need to give them some time and figure out what’s on their mind. No two people are exactly the same,” said Phillips who has worked in different areas in the hospital but always enjoyed doing patient care the most.
Through the years, she encountered a lot of sickness, including a case of elephantiasis, which had caused part of the patient’s body to swell to massive proportions. Also, she won’t forget a young man with AIDS during the days when there were a lot of unknowns and fear associated with the diagnosis.
“He was a cute, blue-eyed fellow in his 20s with full blown AIDS. He eventually died. I felt compassion for him,” Phillips said quietly. “People were afraid, I thought, ‘Lord, honey, he needs help like everybody else.’ We put on our protective gear and cared for him.”
When she retired from the hospital in 1999, her employee record was sterling, never once being late to work during her 30-year career.
After leaving the hospital, the woman who likes yard sales and canning and freezing vegetables she grows in a small garden and gets from her sister’s farm decided sitting around didn’t suit her.
“I don’t have to work nights and weekends at the SurgiCenter,” she said with a grin. “I still get to interact with patients but have time for other things I enjoy.”
Those other things include attending Cherry Grove Missionary Baptist Church, cooking favorites like meatloaf and baking her famous chocolate chip and jam cakes.
She was surprised recently when her son posted a photo of a plate full of her cooking on Facebook. Outside her house, there is a riot of flowers in a rainbow of colors she meticulously tends.
Always of a curious nature, Phillips has logged thousands of miles traveling in the United States and Europe. But, her eyes shine like a full moon over the ocean when the topic turns to taking cruises.
“Oh, honey, I love cruising. I’m a cruise queen. You meet the most interesting people. I took my 19th cruise in 2014,” said Phillips, while laughing out loud about an on-ship experience when she won first prize for lip-syncing Aretha Franklin’s hit song, “Respect,” using a banana for a microphone. “I’ve still got the little prize they gave me.”
On her destination list is the historic Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C., which she plans to visit this spring when the gardens are blooming.
She doesn’t worry about the future, living one day at a time to its fullest.
“God’s got the last word,” she said. “We don’t know His plans, but I’m thankful He has been good to me.”