Norton Neuroscience Institute nurse practitioner Jessica Johnston’s ‘amazing’ experience was on display across the country
The opportunity of a lifetime came calling for Louisvillian Jessica Johnston in March 2017. That’s when the 29-year-old was selected as a cast member for the 35th season of “Survivor,” CBS’s Emmy award-winning reality television show.
Despite the fears and challenges Johnston faced on a remote Pacific island, she brought back great memories. If given the opportunity, she even would do it all over again.
“The experience was amazing and I made friendships that I will have for the rest of my life,” she said. “I am very appreciative of the fact that I got to experience what thousands wish and apply for each year.”
Johnston is not exaggerating. According to CBS, the show receives more than 20,000 applications each season. From those applications, only 18 participants are selected to be “castaways” on an island, where they face environmental, physical and psychological challenges during the show’s competition format.
“Mamanuca Islands, Fiji, was breathtaking,” Johnston said. “As a participant on ‘Survivor,’ our amenities were lacking, but the scenery was amazing.”
Johnston left Louisville for Fiji in late March 2017, and filming began in early May. For the first four episodes, the contestants were divided into three teams: “Heroes,” “Healers” and “Hustlers.”
Johnston, who is a nurse practitioner with Norton Neuroscience Institute in Louisville, was part of the “Healers” team, composed of people who serve others by helping them heal physically or emotionally.
On the island, she and her teammates slept in makeshift shelters and ate as little as half a cup of rice per day.
“I remember being hungry a lot. Coconuts were plentiful, but the raw coconut meat and milk were hard on our stomachs,” she said. “Spearfishing was an option, but it was very difficult and took hours in the scorching sun to possibly catch a very small fish. You had to ask yourself, ‘Is the effort worth the reward?’ And in most cases it was not.”
Johnston spent months prior to her departure preparing for the challenges. Physical preparation not only entailed physical workouts but also reducing her food intake.
“I eat six small meals a day focusing on high protein and multigrain foods. I knew that food would be scarce and availability would depend on my team’s ability to fend for ourselves. So, I started cutting back on my food intake and reducing my meals by one each week,” she said. “By the week prior to my departure, I was eating one meal a day. My stomach began to shrink and my body was responding to the ability to function on the reduced amount of calories.”
Johnston lost about 10 pounds while on the island.
Johnston believes her faith and past experiences served her well in preparing mentally and emotionally.
“I found myself drawing inspiration from both my education and work experiences,” she said. “Five years of intense study to complete my doctorate degree while working as a nurse and managing life in general taught me to overcome challenges.”
She recalls feeling awful and drained some days, telling herself “You must push through” both during her career development and on the TV show.
Her ability to manage dominant personalities as well as softer demeanors also was a help.
“I interact with all types of people,” she said. “Dominance in a game like ‘Survivor’ can be a challenge. I felt ready to take on the challenge.”
In addition to her career as a nurse practitioner, Johnston has a deep passion for health and wellness.
“I challenged myself to use my degree as a nurse practitioner and personal trainer to bring my passion for health and wellness together to benefit others,” Johnston said. “In 2016, I founded Belovist, a community of health entrepreneurs and enthusiasts gathering their expertise of health, fitness and nutrition to help educate, motivate and inspire those looking to begin or expand their journey of health and wellness.”
After being the seventh “Survivor” castaway to be voted off the island, Johnston is happy to be back home and is appreciative of all the support she received from her friends in Louisville and her family and friends in her hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
In December, when the season finale of “Survivor” aired, Johnston flew to California to reunite with all 18 castaways. Gathering with the cast confirmed for Johnston that, if given the chance, she would do it all again.
“Being with everyone to watch the final episode and seeing Ben (Driebergen) win just reminds me how much I enjoyed the process and would definitely do it again,” she said. “Fingers crossed that door opens in my future.”