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"You Saved Lives": Celebrating the Kugel and Zuroweste Award Winner

Supporters of Kugel and Zuroweste Health Justice Award winner

In a year defined by health inequities and limited health care access, the push for health justice remains crucial to Migrant Clinicians Network’s work. MCN’s Kugel and Zuroweste Health Justice Award serves to celebrate the work of migrant clinicians who are actively engaged in the fight for health justice. This month, MCN hosted an awards ceremony to celebrate Caroline Johnson, FNP, Clinical Director for Proteus, Inc., and the inaugural recipient of the Kugel and Zuroweste Health Justice Award. While COVID-19 scrapped plans for an in-person ceremony, more than 40 people registered for a virtual ceremony, held via Zoom, which brought together MCN staff with Johnson’s supporters to recognize her positive impact for health justice.

Hosted by Laszlo Madaras, MD, MPH, MCN’s Chief Medical Officer, the ceremony included half a dozen video testimonials, including an opening meditation on Ed Zuroweste, MD, and Candace Kugel, FNP, CNM, MS by Karen Mountain, MBA, MSN, RN, Chief Executive Officer of MCN. 

 “I believe that Candace Kugel and Ed Zuroweste’s legacy is defined by their gentleness, their determination, and their passion,” Mountain said, in her opening remarks.

Sharing with the audience anecdotes of how Kugel made multiple trips to Honduras despite her dislike of hot weather and Dr. Zuroweste’s tradition of singing Happy Birthday to every child he delivers, Mountain gave the audience insight into MCN’s people-centered culture, of working to create health justice in the most needy of places.

Of Johnson, Mountain opined, “She’s a woman who embodies Candace and Ed’s legacy: passion, a gentle approach, and determination to provide justice for some of the most vulnerable during this unprecedented pandemic.”

Johnson’s thoughtful but rapid response to the pandemic was praised in subsequent videos, where colleagues called out her leadership, innovation, and ability to deliver practical solutions in the face of tremendous challenges. 

“She thinks beyond the challenge in front of her and her team to the solution, and then she makes things happen, always with the farmworker’s best interest in mind,” Claudia Corwin, an occupational medicine and public health physician, said in her recorded statement.

For just over a year and a half, Johnson has served as Clinical Director for Proteus, Inc., an organization which provides advocacy, health, and support services to agricultural workers throughout the Upper Midwest. She was nominated by Daniel Hoffman-Zinnel, Proteus, Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer, and Lacey Naaktgeboren Trygstaad, Health Program Director.

“It was really through Caroline’s leadership of our follow-up care, that I truly believe, we saved lives,” Hoffman-Zinnel said in his video. “Caroline, you saved lives.”

Hoffman-Zinnel's glowing praise on Johnson’s management of the COVID crisis is far from hyperbole. The coordination of efforts to minimize the exposure risk for Proteus, Inc.’s clients was so successful that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reached out to Johnson and requested her assistance in crafting a “Best Practices” protocol. The development of such leadership seemed to be in stark contrast to her background, according to Johnson, describing herself as someone whose struggle with being “underestimated” has been almost lifelong.


Caroline Johnson, FNP

“I’ve never been a straight-A student, I barely graduated from college,” she explained in her acceptance speech. “It took six years of working at a doctor’s office and going to night school to finally be accepted into a nursing program.”

Even obtaining the position of Clinical Director, she confessed, involved grappling with the question of whether she would prove to be right for the job.

“I knew I was meant for the job when I saw the posting,” she confessed in her video. “Lacey, our program director, who nominated me for this award, will tell you that I basically knocked down her door for this position.”

Johnson’s authentic disclosure had a clear impact on the audience. Despite the speech being pre-recorded, many of the emotions were felt in real time.

"I found Caroline's testimonial very moving, especially her humility opening up about her struggles to complete her degree and qualifications to become a nurse and then a nurse practitioner,” Dr. Madaras said. “Some people would want to bury their struggles and focus only on their achievements. Caroline made herself more interesting, approachable, and human. Her setbacks make her even more empathetic to the struggle of others, and make me realize that we made the right choice in selecting her as our first Kugel and Zuroweste Health Justice Award recipient.”

Johnson closed her video by stating that winning the award had imbued her with a fresh sense of purpose for the populations Proteus, Inc., serves, a response which seemed to invoke similar feelings in some of the audience, including Dr. Madaras.

“Being with those amazing people who supported her rubbed off on me,” he said. “I left that heartwarming Zoom meeting more motivated to return to the hospital COVID wards and do my job energized with warmth and compassion."

The Kugel and Zuroweste Health Justice Award is an annual award, designed to recognize a frontline clinician nominated by their peers who is no more than five years into their career making a tangible impact for health justice among migrant and mobile populations. Sign up for our newsletter to hear when applications are open. 


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