The isolation of living with COVID-19 can be unbearable. These patients often have limited interactions with the outside world and their health can suffer as a result. That’s why emergency room nurse Brooke Johns, RN spends her time away from work giving free haircuts and stylings to people in need. As a bona fide hair expert, she’s making a difference one curl at a time. We all need to be pampered once in a while.
When Johns isn’t working in the ER at Southern Hills Hospital in Las Vegas, you can usually find her primping the hair of the patients down the hall. She often braids or brushes their hair, which gives her a chance to talk with them. It’s also one of the few instances where they get to feel another person’s touch.
“I feel like there’s something very special about brushing somebody’s hair,” Johns said during a recent appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America. “It’s something just relaxing and very connecting.”
She says it all started when one of her close friends came down with COVID-19 in 2020. The hospital didn’t allow visitors, and Johns was one of the few people that could come into her room.
“Her hair was very matted in the back,” Johns said of her friend. “She was so weak, and wasn’t able to brush it out herself, so I just said, ‘Do you want me to brush your hair?'”
“It took me an hour and a half to brush out her hair,” she said. “Then I asked her, ‘Do you want me to braid it so that it doesn’t get like that again?’ And she said, ‘Yes.'”
Johns noticed a change in friend’s demeanor right away.
“She was a different person when I left. The thought just popped into my head that if my friend benefitted so much from this, I bet there’s a hospital full of people that need some sort of human connection,” she said. “We’re all hard-wired for connection. We’re social beings and we need that.”
Johns soon started offering the same services to other patients in the COVID-19 ward.
Healing Through Hair
Sierra Stein, 24, knows how powerful these interactions can be. She contracted the virus last summer and became paralyzed in her legs, which led to a months’ long stay in the hospital.
“It was miserable because you couldn’t have anyone there,” Stein said of the experience. “You’re isolated, you’re lonely. It’s a really dark place.” Johns took care of Stein when she was in the hospital, but she often loses track of her patients after they leave the ER.
Stein was later released and regained the ability to walk. Nearly a year later, she experienced more pain in her leg and had to go back to the hospital for treatment.
“They were like, ‘Do you want to get your hair braided?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, of course,'” Stein said. “That’s when I saw Brooke again.”
Johns says following up with her patients can be a challenge, considering all the patients coming in and out of the ER. She often goes to her director and asks them to put out a broadcast to all the nurses to see if any of their patients want to get their hair braided. The other nurses will then text Johns the patient’s room number so she can visit them one by one.
“We never get to see the end of the story, which is why Sierra was such a special situation — that never happens,” Johns said. “We either help people to the point where they get to go home or we help people to the point where they need to be admitted to the hospital, and that’s where our access to them stops.”
Stein says she will never forget how Johns sat with her when she was at her lowest.
“It’s such a nice distraction from your illness,” Stein said. “When you’re in the hospital your mental health kind of gets shut down. It’s really just amazing that there are fairy godmothers going around in the hospital who actually care and take the time to sprinkle a little sunshine on you. It makes you feel like you’re at home again.”
For Johns, braiding someone’s hair shows them they are loved.
“Everybody has a story that will bring you to your knees,” Johns said. “Life is hard, and that’s why I think it’s so important to be kind and patient and spend time with people.”
Alexis Mussi, CEO of Southern Hills, says Johns has inspired other nurses on staff to do the same.
“This past year our care team became the spouse, the family member, the friend, the everything for our patients,” Mussi said. “When there isn’t someone here holding that hand at the bedside, it really became our team doing that, so having people like Brooke really helped.”
With her platinum blond hair, Johns also plans on dressing up like Elsa from Disney’s Frozen while visiting a local children’s hospital.
“Nurses, in general, get into this to help other people.”