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News | March 8, 2023

Big Hearts from Small, Small Places

By Petty Officer 1st Class Benjamin Lewis

CARIBBEAN SEA – Sailors stand in a red and white metal space filled with folded wheelchairs and various medical equipment, each paired with a plastic torso and dummy infant at their feet. All eyes are fixed on the only voice in the room. The voice, carefully but clearly asking questions and giving out instructions, comes from a woman adorned in blue coveralls with her dark hair pulled back in a neat bun.

“Any questions, comments, concerns?” says Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Johana Chi as she wraps up her explanation for today’s CPR training.
The trainees rhythmically compress the dummy’s chests and call out to pretend bystanders as Chi watches closely. She kneels next to one Sailor and quickly corrects his pace and position of his compressions.

“The placement of the hands is extremely important,” she says, the direction of her voice transitioning from one person to the entire group.

Chi’s instructions are concise and fast, and said with a smile and almost a bounce as she moves from person to person. Soon, each trainee had demonstrated technique and knowledge that Chi seemed to be satisfied with. After she directed everyone to sign a paper, she began methodically dismantling the dummies while helpers struggled to find the correct way to remove the plastic heads from the torso. Chi was a seasoned teacher, borrowing from a long list of learned lessons.

“At the end of the day, it’s about saving a life,” said Chi. “Everything I do, I try to do my best. I try to do my best.” The second time was delivered with slight exasperation.

Chi was born and raised in Santa Ana, El Salvador. “A small, small place,” she aptly described it.

Chi spoke of her memories there in a similar manner, reluctant to spend time on details.
“I have seen it,” she explained. “I have lived things that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. There were many points in my life where I didn’t have anything. My family didn’t have anything.”

Chi’s father was the first to move to the U.S., her mother following some years after, leaving Chi to care for her younger brother. Their age difference and situation contributed to her brother seeing Chi as a mother more than a sister. A smile always spread across her face when she spoke about him.

“He trusts me,” she beamed. “He can tell me whatever he wants, whatever he needs. He looks to me for that.” The smile dropped. “It was painful when I left him, you know.”
Chi steeled her resolve to follow her parents to America, leaving her brother in the care of her grandmother and aunt.

“I didn’t see myself doing much in El Salvador, you know,” said Chi. “There’s a lack of opportunity, lack of jobs. I didn’t see a future, so I told [my father], ‘I wanna go! I’ll do whatever it takes.’”

A solitary young girl, 15 years young, crossed the border. The exact memories of the event were pushed down behind serious eyes.

“There were many things that happened that I can’t fully express,” Chi said. “There were moments where I thought, ‘This is it, Johana. This is it. There is nothing else. There is no tomorrow. Today is the day.” She stared into space for just a moment before continuing.

“And, it didn’t happen,” Chi said with a smile returning to her face. “It didn’t happen.” Eventually, she had successfully reunited with her parents in Norman, Oklahoma where she enrolled in high school.

Chi had always been a talented student, attaining several academic accolades and even placing 2nd in nationals for math in El Salvador when she was a child. She also taught herself English despite frequent discouragement from outside sources. After graduation, Chi also got her hands on a partial scholarship to Oklahoma State University. She wanted to be a nurse, but she was not able to cover the remaining tuition.

“Yeah, it’s not going to happen for me,” she said, recalling her past thoughts with a chuckle. “So, I went to a recruiter. He told me about being a corpsman. Got a contract and next thing I know I was in bootcamp.”

The year was now 2019, with Chi landing at her first command in San Diego as an E-1. She transferred from California to North Carolina a short time after, feeling relatively successful, sporting E-4 as her new pay-grade. There, it took her just two attempts to pick up another chevron. Then it was 2022 and Chi’s boots hit the deck plates of hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) as she geared up for a deployment to Central America and the Caribbean. The ship made a quick stop state-side when she got an unexpected text.

“I was in Miami, and I finally got reception,” she said, her speech quickening. “I saw that my aunt in El Salvador was texting. She sent me, like, a million texts.”

Apparently, Chi left an impression during her nine, young years at her old Santa Ana schoolhouse. The director of the school was in contact with her aunt and told her of all her memories of Chi, what they knew about her successful career in America and how supportive they were. The director also mentioned the condition the school was in. They had no funds to host the kindergarten-age class’s graduation.

“I said, ‘You know what? Just let me know how much they spend.’” Chi said.

She was able to get the funds to the school and the class was able to have a graduation, decorations and all. Chi smiled as she recalled the pictures she received from the class. The kids, the presents and even a decorated board with her name on it were all there.

“I just wanted to give back everything they gave me,” she said. “At some points in my life, they were all I had. I don’t want that for myself or anybody. I know they’re struggling so I will do anything in my power to help them not in that position. I know how it feels. I know how it hurts.”

As the deployment continued, Chi worked diligently as assistant leading petty officer in the sick bay aboard Comfort. Her bilingual skillset coming in use as the ship visited ports in Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and more. She worked with foreign volunteers and met sick patients who could not remember the last time they ate. Chi thought for a moment about any wisdom her previous life and the Comfort’s mission imparted on her.

“We should be thankful in America,” she finally said. “We should be thankful every single day, every single minute, every single meal, every single time we’re walking to our house… I really hope people take what they have seen in these countries as a life lesson. Appreciate your family, appreciate your house, appreciate where you sleep and what you eat.”

Chi also spoke about future plans to become an officer in the Navy. She is currently one year from completing her Bachelor’s in healthcare administration.

“That’s one of my goals,” she said with a quicker cadence. “I have many goals, I’m telling you. I love to know what I’m going to do next… I can be 50 years old and I’m still going to throw that package in there… You always keep trying.”

“Everyone has obstacles,” said Chi. “It’s the way you overcome them. I learn from them and move on. I learned that you can get stuck… nobody’s going to come rescue you. You have to teach yourself how to move out of that situation and help others get out. That’s how you have to do it.”

Chi was reluctant to share the specifics of her troubling journey, but does not hesitate to use her ability and experience she gained from it to aid others. She finished processing her last thoughts on the manner and left the red and white space where the CPR dummies were moments before, as she had more work to attend to.
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