Date: July 1st, 2003
Dr. Kenneth Johnson has considered encouraging his wife to retire and step "out of the trenches," but he has abandoned the thought. He is a practical man.
"I knew she would have to have something very interesting and worthwhile to get her to retire and leave her patients," he said.
Johnson's wife is Dr. Marie-Louise Johnson, 76, a dermatologist who operates a practice in Kingston, N.Y. But if you want her to be your dermatologist, you'll have to wait more than a year for a new patient appointment.
Her husband, a respected cardiologist, consultant, and authority on public health himself, explains why he thinks patients continually seek her out: "She's well-known for being a very compassionate person. She is surrounded by affection from residents, patients, and coworkers. She transmits a deep concern for the general welfare of the person," he said.
Life beyond a thriving practice
Johnson's patient practice only tells part of the story of her life as a physician. Her reach extends beyond direct contact with her patients into all facets of medicine including research and education, as well as a few she invented herself when she saw the need. Johnson is what might be understated in corporate-speak as a "self-starter."
Her curriculum vitae documents an impressive string of teaching assignments at Yale, Dartmouth, Cornell and New York University, among other prestigious institutions and hospitals. It also catalogs her more quantifiable accomplishments, including President of the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation, service on the Institute of National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine Committee on Defense Women's Health Research, and President of the Association of Yale Alumni in Medicine, just to pick a few from a long list.
What you don't see on paper is how many of her accomplishments have been firsts: First woman President of the American Dermatological Association. First woman elected to the Institute of Medicine within the National Academy of Sciences. First dermatologist to travel to Japan associated with the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission.
The assignment in Japan involved examining atomic blast survivors for the effects the radiation had on their health. It was one of many roles in which Johnson took the reins by establishing guidelines and training other physicians. She also designed and implemented the dermatology component of the Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the largest-ever comprehensive study of American health, in the early 1970s. The fact that the survey even contained a dermatology component was also her doing.
"Whatever I'm doing is working."
Today, Johnson keeps office hours three days a week and spends the other two keeping up with her academic responsibilities. A couple of times a month, she travels to Yale to do rounds and present cases.
She concedes that there are some her age who "would be thinking about putting their toys up on the shelf," but the bottom line is that there is too much interesting work to be done, so retirement does not appeal to her. It must be the work that keeps her going, because it certainly isn't some carbo-loaded, energy-packing diet. She starts her day with a pot of tea, and eats nothing the rest of the day until supper at home in the evening.
"A mother might say, 'My daughter should eat breakfast. Tell her she should eat breakfast.' and I have to say 'If I did, I would be a hypocrite,'" she said. "Whatever I'm doing is working. I don't want to look too closely."
Johnson is currently working on an "interesting and worthwhile" project, one that just might allow her to feel good enough about the quality of care her patients are receiving to cut back on her office hours a bit. Working in phases, she is establishing a skin center where she plans for area patients to receive the same care they would if they traveled the 100 miles or so to New York or New Haven.
Even once the center is established, however, it's doubtful that the couple will be basking on any beaches. "We're not travelers," Johnson's husband said. "We travel a lot, but we would be very uneasy or bored if we took a cruise somewhere. What's ideal for us is to go to a place where we have something useful and interesting to do."
The couple travels to Rome, Italy, about three times a year, but not as tourists. While there, they consult and work on various projects with their contacts in the medical community in that city. And while some of their other destinations - Jamaica and the Bahamas, for example - sound exotic, the couple spent their time there teaching, conducting research, vaccinating populations against polio and setting up a clinic.
"It's a great change," he says of the couple's working travels. "It's a real let-up - an ideal vacation. You're helping someone while you're there, and you're not a tourist. You're right in there in the life of the country."