June 8, 2010

From success to significance

Many children dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts or movie stars. As an 8-year-old growing up in Dalton in the 1950s, David Johnson was no different. Donning a white doctor’s coat and helping others topped his list of goals.

Today Johnson is not only called doctor, he’s also become an internationally known oncologist specializing in the treatment of lung cancer at Vanderbilt University and the go-to guy for fellow oncologists in the Southeast when they have tough cases.

Johnson credits many Dalton teachers and area physicians who encouraged him to follow his chosen path.

“The Dalton school system was phenomenal,” he said. “I had very good teachers. They weren’t trying to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. I had great teachers all through school. They were all helpful.”

And he has nothing but fond words for Dr. Paul Bradley (the Johnson family doctor), Dr. Roy T. Farrow and Dr. Murray Lumpkin. Bradley and Johnson’s father were close friends, and Johnson considers Bradley a model of what a doctor should be. A few years later, Farrow moved into the neighborhood, and Johnson got to know him after baby-sitting his two boys. Lumpkin was the uncle of a close childhood friend, Dr. Bill Lumpkin.

After graduating from Dalton High in 1966, Johnson headed to the University of Kentucky on a ROTC military scholarship.

“Academic scholarships were not something to get because there was a war going on,” he said. “And they didn’t draft you if you were going to college.”

Johnson majored in zoology, then a popular major for pre-med students. Even so, in the tumultuous era of the 1960s, he says he questioned his choice of medicine many times.

“In the late ‘60s, many college students became anti-establishment and questioned what they were doing,” Johnson said. “I even considered political science for a while.”

At the Medical College of Georgia, a couple of professors told him they thought he had a future in basic lab research. When he finished in 1976, Johnson interned in New York, did a residency in Alabama and then returned to the Medical College of Georgia as chief resident. There he honed his skills for a year, then thought about moving back to Dalton or another Georgia city to open a practice and be close to his and wife Beverly’s families here.

However, fate had other plans.

“I developed a fondness for academic medicine and disease therapy — particularly cancer,” said Johnson. “When I started, there wasn’t much anyone could do for cancer. Most patients didn’t do well or died. I was diagnosed with cancer in 1988. It was eye opening as a cancer doctor to be on the other side.”

Following a two-year stint in Augusta, a mentor there suggested he become an academic physician and focus in a specific area. Johnson transferred to Vanderbilt for what was supposed to be another two-year stint but ended up lasting longer.

Thirty years longer.

“College leadership told me I needed to stay,” he said. “I went up the ranks from trainee to professor to cancer program leader. I helped create the (Vanderbilt-Ingram) cancer center.”

In the years since, the center has become one of the leading programs in the country, and Johnson has trained countless men and women in the field. He served as the president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2005 and holds active committee leadership positions in the Lance Armstrong Foundation, National Cancer Institute and National Comprehensive Cancer Network. That success has attracted numerous job offers over the years which he has all declined — until now.

Effective July 1, Johnson will become the chairman of the department of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He may be nearing retirement age, but Johnson believes he has lots more to contribute.

“I’m concerned about the future of medicine,” he said. “The amount of information doctors have to know today is overwhelming, and we’re still training them the same as we were in the ‘50s. We have to improve the way we train doctors and provide them with tools needed to help them learn. UT Southwestern feels the same.”

Johnson is most proud of the doctors he’s trained at Vanderbilt and also feels fortunate to have helped create the cancer center. He says his profession “still has a majesty to it” and he wants future doctors to see it in that light.

The book “Finishing Strong” by Robert Buford recently enforced that feeling for Johnson. Buford writes that people’s careers can be split into two categories — success and significance.

“From success to significance … I’m at that point now,” said Johnson. “I feel very fortunate to have been a doctor. I have had the very best career one could have. Now I want to take that experience and help other men and women enjoy something akin to what I’ve been able to do.”

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