Dr. Céleste Johnston of Hunt’s Point, a trailblazer in neonatal pain research, has been named to the Order of Canada.
Created in 1967, the Order of Canada is one of the country’s highest civilian honours and recognizes outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the nation.
Johnston’s name was announced, along with that of 134 other Canadians, in a recent news release.
“I was pretty surprised and quite thrilled. The thing that I think is important is that all of the work that I have done has been with a whole bunch of other people, and they’ve all had tremendous input into it, so I feel like I should be sharing this with other people,” she commented to LighthouseNOW.
Johnston received the call that she was going to receive the award at the end of September.
“When they called me, I was, like, ‘Wow, really?’” she recalled, adding that she had been receiving a lot of spam calls from the 613 area code and almost didn’t answer her phone.
Johnston was born and raised in the U.S. but came to Canada when she was 18 to attend school. She studied at the Royal Victoria Hospital School of Nursing in Montreal and went on to complete her master’s degree at Boston University before attending McGill University to achieve her doctorate, which she did in 1979.
She secured a job at the Montreal Children’s Hospital where she became the director of nursing research and went on to teach at McGill from 1989 to 2011, when she retired to Hunt’s Point. Johnston is now a professor emeritus at McGill.
“As one of my professors at McGill said when I was an undergrad, ‘You don’t have to be the best; you have to be the first.' And although some of the things that I’ve done may have been the best, in fact, I was the first to do a bunch of things,” said Johnston, explaining that she was the first to give a multi-dimensional description of infant pain.
“It’s all that, it’s the work on measuring pain in infants and finding safe ways to help them. I also did the study on the prevalence of infant pain and that was the first in Canada. And I also did studies on the long-term consequences of pain.”
Johnston began her research after a group of nurses at Montreal’s Children’s Hospital asked her if she could help show them when babies were in pain because they felt they weren’t getting the analgesics that they should be getting.
At that time, in the early 1980s, there were no measures of pain in infants and doctors passed it off as something that would go away or be outgrown, or surgery would have been done, but “nobody really treated it,” Johnston said.
She began studying healthy, full-term neonates (newborn children) getting their immunizations, and after discovering they didn’t suffer from much pain she began focusing on pre-term neonates.
“All of my work has been developing measures, various indicators of pain, and then the other thing happened,” she said. “I did a study that showed how many painful procedures that babies in the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) get on a daily basis across Canada.”
In a study encompassing 14 NICUs across Canada, she found that babies or infants go through at least 10 painful procedures daily. Noting it’s not advisable to give analgesics to a developing system, she began exploring safe ways to mitigate the pain.
One of her first studies was with a former student, Bonnie Stevens, who now works at the University of Toronto Sick Kids hospital and is continuing the research.
“Sucrose has a really sweet taste and it seems to have an analgesic effect, and it’s short-lived,” said Johnston.. “If you aren’t feeling well and you have a piece of chocolate you will feel a little better. It isn’t just psychological, there’s actually some mechanisms going on there, and we think it might release endorphins or serotonin. We’re not sure.”
They took the study further and used the idea through some controlled experimentation and these studies set the standard of care for toddlers, explained Johnston.
At this same time in South Africa, where there was a lack of incubators, they looked at the Kangaroo Care for infants which is skin-to-skin contact between the mother and the baby and its effectiveness. Johnston took that concept and researched ways to adopt it to care for pain in pre-term neonates. She found that it was effective in the recovery of neonates.
Johnston and her husband acquired property in Hunt’s Point in 2007. They travelled back and forth to Montreal until her retirement. She now enjoys canoeing, kayaking, swimming and being with friends.
Also earning the Order of Canada was Dr. Peter Vaughan, the former CEO of the South Shore District Health Authority. Vaughan was rewarded for his contributions to Canada’s health care system and his pioneering leadership in the establishment and advancement of digital health.
Vaughan is also the former deputy minister of Health and Wellness and CEO of the Canadian Medical Association. He is currently a board chair of the Canada Health Info Highway and treasurer of the Supply Chain Advancement Network for Health (SCAN Health).
Kevin McBain, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin