Who Are We Wednesdays - Teresa Wright-Johnson
EASTON --- In a recent interview, Teresa Wright-Johnson said she believes in advocacy for two reasons: to teach people how to stand up for themselves and to empower others by sharing her story. She went on to say, "When someone truly believes that their voice matters, then they don't wait for a seat at the table. They demand one." If you think about the time we are currently living in, Teresa is far from the only person who thinks and feels this way.
Wright-Johnson grew up in Hillside, New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University with a bachelor's degree in political science. In 2004, she married her husband Marvin and moved to the Lehigh Valley. She had a career in law enforcement as a parole officer but has since retired and now serves as a speaker, author, advocate and activist. Teresa will tell you she is 'A Heart That MatterS' but her heart has also given her complications her entire life.
Wright-Johnson was born with a congenital heart defect and lives with heart disease. She was the youngest of five children and the only one born with any health issues. Doctors told her parents that she may not have a normal life and her activity would be limited. Teresa has had multiple surgeries and will need more in the future but she has been able to surpass all the odds.
"(I was told) I may reach 15 or not, 20 or not," said Wright-Johnson. "As I aged, technology caught up with the illnesses and changed that trajectory. I have survived and thrived."
Yet Teresa's heart is not the only medical concern. In 2014, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves according to the Mayo Clinic.
"I will never forget the day (I was diagnosed). I had been under watch for a year and a half prior because of suspicious symptoms (such as tingling and numbness in her face and tongue on her left side). After testing, doctors found lesions on my brain and cervical spine. It knocked the wind out of me," Wright-Johnson said.
Teresa says while Marvin was supportive, she could not stop crying and the hardest part was telling her parents MS was incurable.
"Some days, I am in so much pain that I don't even want to open my eyes. Last week, I couldn't even walk. I live with chronic pain every single day of my life," uttered Wright-Johnson.
Teresa's outlook remains positive although she has also had to endure not just physical pain but emotional loss as well. Three of her siblings have passed away including a sister who fought multiple myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells). She also lost a sister-in-law, two uncles, an aunt and her father-in-law to other forms of cancer.
"Every second is borrowed time," said Wright-Johnson. "Whenever I put those things into perspective, I realize my existence is not by accident. I have been chosen to stay."
Admittedly, her sister Nettie Cheeseboro's bout with cancer hit home the hardest. Cheeseboro was first diagnosed in 2012 with multiple myeloma. Nettie had a growth on the side of her face which her dentist first thought it was an infection. She took medicine but it never left. Eventually, Cheeseboro had an MRI, bloodwork and biopsy which revealed the dreadful news, however, she would go into remission after receiving a bone marrow transplant.
"I was elated we had more time," said Teresa. "It was always in the back of my mind when is this going to come back."
Unfortunately, shortly before Wright-Johnson received her MS diagnosis, Nettie's cancer returned. By December 2014, Cheeseboro was in the hospital. A month later, her fight ended.
"We never know what's on the other side of the sunset until the sunrises but we do know that an indomitable will, support, faith and action can help get us through the toughest times," said Teresa.
Wright-Johnson, a woman who values actions more than words, will assist Every Ribbon Counts in the fight against cancer by helping the foundation move towards a more diverse future.
That is something Teresa feels is as crucial and timely as ever considering how devastating cancer has been to the black community. African Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the US for most cancers according to the American Cancer Society.
She also feels diversity and inclusion are paramount due to the moment we are living in right now when it comes to racial and social unrest. Wright-Johnson says she is angered, hurt and saddened by the senseless killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and this is a heavy time for the black community. Yet she wants to be part of the solution to the issue of systemic racism and police brutality.
"Everyone can say I'm sorry and I stand with you. I want to see your actionable items. What are you going to do next? Let me see you diversify your company, your boards. Let me see you get in contact with our legislators," Teresa said.
"George Floyd's murder and all the others that occurred before him, such as Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, Treyvon Martin at the hands of those sworn to serve and protect is an atrocity. Excessive force and disparate treatment cannot be tolerated. Our system is flawed and reform and ethical policing are a must. As a black woman, a patient advocate and a retired law enforcement officer, my call to action is to denounce systemic racism, police brutality, unequal treatment in healthcare and the criminal justice system. Also, diverse and inclusive practices must be implemented so that all are represented. We are not expendable. Black Lives Matter."
Teresa believes the solution to these societal issues will come from all races coming together and sacrificing something for the greater good. She also has faith that racism will be defeated by a new generation of leaders demanding systemic, sustainable change.
"The world is not working the way it is. What gives me hope is the voting polls. It is so important, more than ever, that we vote. You can no longer be a silent citizen," said Wright-Johnson.