‘All About Heart’ For Entrepreneurial Nurse Debbie Johnston

By CAROL HAZARDSpecial correspondent

Startup Spotlight

Title: Founder and CEO of Ask Nurse Debbie, a startup in Richmond providing concierge care management advice and services to help people navigate the healthcare system.

Experience: Registered nurse; founder and former CEO of Care Advantage Inc., a home healthcare company in Chesterfield County; founder of Connecting Hearts, a nonprofit to connect potential parents with children needing foster care and adoption.

Affiliations: Starred in a 2013 episode of ABC’s “Secret Millionaire” reality show; named Virginia’s Adoption Champion in 2014 by Gov. Terry McAuliffe; appointed to the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority in 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Deborah J. “Debbie” Johnston, a Richmond-area entrepreneur, business owner and philanthropist, puts her stamp of a grateful heart on nearly everything she touches.

That includes starting a home health care company, founding a nonprofit to aid children waiting to be adopted and launching her newest venture – helping people navigate the complex health care system.

The logo for her Richmond startup, Ask Nurse Debbie, is a heart – just as it is for Chesterfield County-based Care Advantage Inc., which employed 3,000 people in home health care when she sold it two years ago, and for Connecting Hearts, an adoption and foster home nonprofit.

“It’s always about the heart … with heart, anything is possible,” Johnston said.

Johnston is a registered nurse at heart, despite her other titles and despite starring in a 2013 episode of ABC’s “Secret Millionaire.”

The reality show featured millionaires who traveled incognito into poor, crime-ridden towns to work with charities and, at the end of the show, revealed their identities and donated to those charities. Johnston gave $150,000 to three charities in Richmond, Calif., and set up two $10,000 scholarships there.

“I care about what happens to people,” Johnston said about her endeavors. “If I can help one person, it was all worth it.”

Ask Nurse Debbie, a health and care management services company, was a natural step for her.

“I started this business because it’s something I do every day in my life. I get calls all the time from people who need help.”

The company offers advice and services, including appointment scheduling, clinical advice and assistance, concierge patient advocacy, diagnosis and treatment research, help with insurance claims and on-call family communications.

Charges start at $50 for a visit and up to $125 an hour for a complete evaluation by a professional registered nurse.

Life can change in a nanosecond, Johnston said. “One day, everything is OK and intact and then grandma breaks her hip and can’t drive.”

Or a friend is diagnosed with prostate cancer and needs help figuring what to do and where to go.

A life change affects not only the injured or sick person but the families of loved ones, she said.

Johnston said she learned this lesson by taking care of her parents and a sister who has multiple sclerosis.

Her father, Richard Johnston, has five physicians and she goes with him to his appointments to make sure each doctor is aware of all the medical issues.

“I am the navigator/advocate for him, which inspired my new business,” she said. He also inspired her to become a nurse, setting her up for success at a young age.

Her father has home health care. For others, assisted living might make more sense.

In some instances, people – many living alone – need counseling to keep them from feeling isolated, Johnston said. “We call it grief hugs.”

A family may need help arranging a funeral. Or a client needs spiritual guidance or acupuncture.

“We can help you make that decision and connect you with someone who is appropriate,” Johnston said.

“We save people time, and we have Rolodexes in our heads to bring resources.”

Navigating the complex health care system is overwhelming for most people, Johnston said.

Since she lives near her father, she can be there for him unlike many people who do not live in the same city let alone the same state.

“So many people need help,” Johnston said. “It can be hard; really hard.”

The staff at Ask Nurse Debbie is made up of Johnston, social worker Tiffany Lester and Sherry Fox, a registered nurse with specialties in oncology and neurology.

While concierge medicine has become common, concierge nursing is a new concept, Fox said. “Nurses bring a unique level of help to patients.”

Fox said it is an honor to work with Johnston in this concierge nursing venture.

“Debbie is a fellow nurse who stepped out there and did something spectacular,” said Fox, referring to Care Advantage, one of the leading home health care companies in Virginia. “I have every reason to believe this new business will be equally spectacular.”

People, especially those in a health care crisis, need help finding services quickly and getting back on the road to better health, Fox said.

Ask Nurse Debbie helps people find the best options and treatments and contracts with experts and professionals to provide those services. Fees are charged for home evaluations and visits.

“When I started this business in December, a lot of people reached out to me – people from all over the place,” Johnston said about her contact list.

When Johnston sees a need, her entrepreneurial spirit kicks in to fill that need.

Her inspiration for Care Advantage, which was founded in 1988, evolved from working in a hospital in the 1980s and seeing patients discharged before they were ready.

Johnston grew the home health care business to 12 locations in Virginia and sold it in January 2017 to New York-based BelHealth Investment Partners LLC, a health care-focused private equity firm.

“I didn’t have the experience to take it to other states,” said Johnston, who serves as a board member for Care Advantage. The company has expanded since the sale into Northern Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland.

Johnston used proceeds from the sale to “play Santa” to local charities. “That has been a lot of fun,” she said.

She contributed to REAL Life, a nonprofit to help people who are incarcerated, homeless or battling addictions – or in all three situations – turn their lives around.

“The problem of addiction is so tragic in Richmond and all over the country,” said REAL Life founder Sarah Scarbrough. REAL stands for Recovering from Everyday Addictive Lifestyles.

“Debbie has a personal passion for what we do because she lost someone close to her to an opioid overdose,” Scarbrough said.

A garden in her friend’s memory was established at a REAL Life recovery house in the Blackwell neighborhood in Richmond.

“Debbie is such a modest, humble woman,” Scarbrough said. “She operates from her heart. That is what I love about her. She is not scripted.”

A charity even closer to her heart is Connecting Hearts, which Johnston started in 2014 to connect potential parents with child placement services and increase awareness of the critical need in Virginia for foster families and adoptions.

“We have done a beautiful job,” said Johnston, noting that the number of adoptions increased last year to 850 from about 600 in previous years.

Connecting Hearts recently partnered with Jewish Family Services to handle the growing volume.

Adoption is a personal issue for Johnston.

At age 3, she was adopted into her family of four sisters and one brother. They grew up in a one-bathroom house on a farm in Varina. Her late mother, Eunice, once described her as the family’s “guardian angel.”

Johnston was appointed Virginia’s Adoption Champion in 2014 by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

She serves on the Virginia Health Workforce Development Authority and is involved with Unity of Richmond Church, teaching a class on prosperity, forgiveness, loving and how to set goals.

“I take life one day at a time,” Johnston said. “I want people to know that they don’t have to navigate the health care system alone.

“It’s very difficult, and we’re here if you need us to help you with that.”

This article provided by NewsEdge.