The memory of Penn physician Bernett L. Johnson Jr. was honored by word, deed and song on Tuesday, but will remain most visibly remembered at the West Philadelphia community medical center that his wife Mary Martha called “the culmination of his life’s work.”
Sayre Health Center, a full-service primary health care center housed in Sayre High School, was formally renamed the Dr. Bernett L. Johnson Jr. Sayre Health Center on Tuesday in a ceremony that paid tribute to the man who many present said exemplified health care and who passionately believed that people have a basic right to health care.
“We all learned from Bernie,” said Ira Harkavy, director of Penn’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships during the ceremony. Harkavy focused on the kindness and humanity Johnson displayed, his compassion and caring for all people and the social justice for which he advocated.
“His influence will be felt for generations to come,” Albert Black, chief operating officer at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, remarked.
The speakers emphasized how fitting it was that Johnson’s legacy is a center where the sick are treated and preventive care is available.
“It’s bittersweet,” his wife Mary Martha Johnson said a few moments before the ceremonies began. “It’s such a joyous, happy occasion, but it’s so sad that he can’t be here. This has been his dream ever since he was hired by Penn.”
Tonya Moody, chair of the center’s board, described the center’s beginnings, noting the challenges the non-profit board had with a tight deadline from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. “Dr. Johnson rallied the necessary people to have the center up and seeing its first patient in 90 days.”
While the permanent quarters were being constructed, the staff saw patients in a trailer set up in the school’s parking lot. Staff physician Pouné Saberi recalls those days: “It was lonely. It’s so exciting today to see it so organized, to see so many people.
Today, Saberi works with three physician colleagues, an executive director, educational coordinator, two medical assistants, three administrative staff, medical students, high school interns and volunteers, and they all see more than 300 patients a month. The center is expecting to serve 400 patients next month, and is projecting a patient list of about 700 by December 2011.
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell and a representative from State Sen. Anthony Williams' office read official proclamations honoring Johnson. The Johnson family reaffirmed the doctor’s lifelong commitment to education with the presentation of the first Bernett L. Johnson Jr. Education Scholarship to 2009 Sayre High School graduate Lamont Marshall. Center Executive Director Fred Carey described Marshall, who was one of the first Sayre High School interns, as “always attaining the highest standards,” and as someone “who embodies the spirit, service and professionalism that Dr. Johnson valued and modeled.”
The Johnson family also donated one of the late doctor’s paintings—a street scene named “Olney at Broad,”—to the center. The work hangs in the patient waiting area.