Kate Johnson

Oct. 4, 2021
Nurse Practitioner Kate Johnson of UCHealth Highlands Ranch Medical Center – Primary Care. Photo by Mike Mazzanti, UCHealth.
Nurse Practitioner Kate Johnson of UCHealth Highlands Ranch Medical Center – Primary Care. Photo by Mike Mazzanti, UCHealth.

Pushing forward the culture of innovation

Amy Watanabe, like a lot of patients, fears COVID-19, but she is even more afraid of needles. Fortunately, she is vaccinated against the coronavirus thanks to the ingenuity of Kate Johnson, a nurse practitioner.

During a visit in May, Johnson listened intently as Watanabe spoke of her severe phobia of needles and how she wanted to manage it so she could get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Watanabe said she had tried anxiety medications and therapy, but nothing helped to tame the “out-of-body experience with Hulk-like strength” that came over her if a needle was nearby.

Johnson got to work investigating options for her patient. She made referrals to a therapist, but also considered another idea: virtual reality technology.

“Amy’s situation required a little more leg work, but if I can find a solution for someone, I’ll work to do so,” Johnson said. “I’m super passionate about vaccines in general. Amy wanted to get the vaccine, and I knew I needed to do everything in my power to help her get there.”

In the weeks before meeting Watanabe, Johnson had read how physicians in the United Kingdom were using VR technology to help those with needle phobias get vaccinated. Johnson, who joined Highlands Ranch Medical Center – Primary Care in 2019, wasn’t sure if UCHealth was using VR. She made calls and did some digging and then one morning while logging onto her UCHealth computer, she saw a photograph of Nicole Caputo on The Source, and in the photo, a VR headset was resting on her knee.

Johnson wasted no time tracking down Caputo, senior director of UCHealth’s Innovation and Experience team. Caputo commends Johnson for her out-of-the-box thinking.

“That’s what we need people to do — that’s innovation,” Caputo said. “It is inspiring because to be innovative and be a culture of innovation, we need people to ask these questions.”

On July 28, Watanabe put on a VR headset and focused on popping different color balloons while UCHealth pharmacist Felice Lucero administered the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Watanabe had also taken anxiety medication and was listening to her favorite playlist on her headphones.

“It almost feels fake that I did it,” Watanabe said two weeks after her shot. “It was the easiest shot I had in 10 years.”

UCHealth offers VR for patients in outpatient oncology infusion, dialysis, wound care and the burn center and is working to get VR in labs, thanks to Johnson’s inquiry.

“Kate called and asked that question: ‘Will this work for my patient?’ ” Caputo said. “Curiosity is what makes us an innovative organization. We need more people like Kate to pick up that phone. That is what will push us to the next level.”

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About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.