Most physicians and their staffs will empathize with their patients – that’s human nature. But few can show how they’ve lived through the same challenges that their patients face.
Dr. Gerald Johnson and the staff at All Heart Pediatric Cardiology absolutely can.
“I’ve been the heart patient, the spouse and the parent facing life-threatening medical conditions,” Dr. Johnson explains. “Being the parent or spouse is emotionally terrifying. My wife, Cathy, and I have been privileged by God to see miracles throughout our lives, and it’s been a blessing.”
Dr. Johnson’s areas of expertise and interest include General Pediatric Cardiology, Pediatric Echocardiography / Cardiac Imaging, Kawasaki Disease, complex congenital heart disease, and pediatric valve disease.
Like many of his patients, Dr. Johnson has a congenital heart condition. He was born with a bicuspid aortic valve, a valve that only has two leaflets instead of three.
“Nowadays we would treat this aggressively, but back in the 70s you were sent home,” he explains. “If you lived to age four, you’d have an operation.”
And that’s what happened: Dr. Johnson had surgery at age four to open up his aorta, but that was the only treatment available then. “Back in the 80s, they over-restricted people with heart conditions. I was limited in what sports I could participate in, and was bullied as a result.” That experience helps him relate to teenagers he sees in his practice who might be going through similar trials.
Growing up in South Carolina with a heart condition, Dr. Johnson never dreamed he would become a physician. “I was terrified of hospitals,” he admits.
In high school, however, he got the chance to learn more about the techy side of medicine. “It was pretty cool after that,” he says. “Once I realized I was being called to go into medicine, it was pretty obvious which specialty I’d choose.”
“This is what God wanted me to do: take care of the next generation of me. From that point on, I was laser focused on what I needed to do.”
He completed medical school at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. He then completed his pediatric residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, followed by a pediatric cardiology fellowship at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Before relocating to Chattanooga in 2011, he was on staff for 8 years at Penn State-Hershey Medical Center and College of Medicine, where he was an award-winning teacher.
Throughout his life, Dr. Johnson knew that his heart would not last without intervention, that someday, something more would have to be done. When he began passing out in his early 30s, he knew the blockage in his heart had become severe. “Passing out is a scary symptom,” he exclaims. “Literally, you get an operation or you die.”
So, Dr. Johnson had open heart surgery at 33, and had his entire aortic valve replaced with a mechanical one. “There are different options available, and for each patient we have to take into account where they are in life to determine the best long-term solution. This was the best option for me at that time.”
Dr. Johnson has practiced medicine since 2003. Since the time he was being treated as a child through his beginning in medicine to now, there have been a lot of changes.
“Our outcomes have gotten better,” he says. “We have better tools now that we can use to offer people hope.”
Echocardiograms, for example, weren’t available in the 1970s, and ultrasounds have improved dramatically. “Now, I can get results down to a millimeter. These things allow us to get a better diagnosis. When you add improved technology to diagnostic skills, you have better outcomes, less risk and less stress for the patient.”
However, Dr. Johnson thinks some changes in medicine, in general, aren’t as beneficial. “There are so many things that get in the way of treating patients, like paperwork. I could take a computer into the rooms when I visit with patients – it would make our work so much faster. But I don’t like the invasion of all the electronic things that get in the way of talking with patients and their families, and I’m not doing it that way. When you walk into the room with a patient you have a chance to make a difference in somebody’s life. The old techniques, talking to patients, diagnostic skills, are still valuable.”
Dr. Johnson credits his life experiences to his success as a physician. “We’re the product of our experiences in a lot of ways.”
The Johnson’s twin sons were born with cerebral palsy. Dr. Johnson and his wife, Cathy, were told the boys would never walk or talk. Now 14, both boys walk – and talk with the attitudes of typical teenagers.
“Having kids with special needs is a great example: to have two kids who we were told would never walk or talk, and then see them grow into who they are today. I think I am a better physician, a better dad and a better person than I would’ve been if I did not have special needs kids.”
On top of their medical issues with their sons, several years ago Cathy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. “There is nothing more terrifying than dropping someone you love off in surgery, knowing there’s a chance she might not come back,” Dr. Johnson explains. “Her surgery was far worse on me, emotionally, than my own was. It was emotionally terrifying.”
In another miracle for the Johnson family, despite a grim early diagnosis Cathy made a full recovery.
“In the final tally it’s all been a blessing,” Dr. Johnson says. “We were privileged by God to see miracles that I would not have seen otherwise. Ultimately we’re people of faith, and God has taken care of us. Now, we’re taking care of the next generation.”