By Sandra Dempsey Post
While it’s not uncommon for college students to change their major and career plans mid-stream, Doctor Gary Johnson graduated from college, and while working as an accountant, decided to become a doctor. He explains rather lightheartedly that a career in accounting which he believed was worthwhile, wasn’t something he felt would get him up every morning for the rest of his life. He was confident medicine would do that. And it has. A believer in divine inspiration, he remembers a particular message about the medical school option, and he felt guided to pursue that path. “There were distinct moments when that decision resonated,” he explains.
When he was in Medical School, he had the opportunity to study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He remembers, “Two oncologists there in practice both exemplified the caring spirit and total advocacy for the patient. I really gravitated to that care setting. It’s absolutely critical that the patient feels she’s going to get the very best care possible, and that care will be delivered in a compassionate way.”
Dr. Johnson, a Gynecologic Oncologist, provided care for women with cancer of the reproductive system. He completed his Medical Education in 1986; Residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology in 1990; and Fellowship in Gynecologic Oncology in 1993. He came to Peoria in October of 2018 for OSF Medical Group, and was most recently seeing patients at 1001 Main St. Amid surprise and sad acceptance from many staff and patients, he announced his retirement and Thursday, January 13th was his last day.
He’s rather non-specific about how he will fill his time once retirement becomes an everyday reality, but he has certain interests he enjoys. “I am an avid reader, always have been all my life. I am an exercise nut, and exercise helps me both physically and mentally. If I can’t exercise, I become more irritable.” He loved running but developed severe spinal stenosis and had back surgery which relieved the situation, but he discontinued running. “I am a big-time swimmer and swimming is a good alternative. And there is maturity in accepting that sometimes there are certain limitations in life.”
Some medical experiences with patients include helping them attain that acceptance of certain limitations. While medical advances can be astounding in what they accomplish, not every cancer patient can be cured. For some, remission happens, but not always for a long period of time. Sometimes comfort is the best that can be offered, and yes, there are those wonderful outcomes where the patient is cured. The physician must be equipped to deal with all those results and more on any given day. “Trust has to be part of the doctor/patient relationship especially when dealing with life threatening illness,” says Doctor Johnson.
Patients may face other challenging situations in addition to health issues and that doesn’t always allow for productive conversations. To help with that he might ask them about their feelings or perhaps make a suggestion. “It’s very rare that they terminate our relationship. I might comment to them that I don’t feel like they are comfortable, and if they aren’t, and I can’t provide that for them, I suggest maybe they find someone else. Their well-being is the critical issue, not my feelings.” He also says a time for questions from the patient can help break down barriers. He recommends those questions be written down before arriving for the appointment. “Trying to be spontaneous does not usually work well,” he says knowingly. And whenever possible, it’s best when someone accompanies the patient. It’s difficult to listen and later remember important details if a patient is alone and feeling poorly or frightened about her health. Having another person present helps later with that recall.
Doctor Johnson describes his work as being “very compelling” and he “believes and hopes that the practice of medicine is because a person who trained in the medical field is really compelled to provide care. That patient and doctor relationship is sacred. I look back over my life as a clinician and I’ve been richly rewarded.” When asked if he finds people generally good, he says he does. “Yes, I do and I’m mindful that we don’t always get to see the richness of other people’s lives. The generosity of my patients is astounding with what they’ve done for me.”
In addition to rewarding examples he’s experienced from patients, he speaks gratefully of his father, whom he describes as “incredibly diligent and conscientious, and a loving person.” He says he first learned what unconditional love is from his maternal grandmother. His wife, Rhonda, is a retired Clinical Psychologist with a PhD and she has published several papers. “We share a passion for education,” says Doctor Johnson. They have been married 16 years and theirs is a blended family with children and grandchildren. The couple enjoys sharing events of the day with each other which he says is “stress reducing.” The event sharing often takes place outside with the added attraction of a pond, a bench for sitting around the pond, and a glass of wine.
When asked, “what would you like people to remember about you?” he responds thoughtfully. “Think of me as compassionate and skilled, a provider of care.” His confidence about his surgical skills and he believes he should be confident, as he recognizes its importance to his profession. His knowledge, determination, skill, dedication, and confidence helped to add an improved quality of health or healing to his patients. He is a person trained in the medical field genuinely “compelled to provide care.”
Postscript: Thanks to details coming together at the right time, and to Divine Providence for intervention, I met Doctor Gary Johnson on September 21st, 2020. I had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was referred to him. After many consultations and chemo, and enough time to consider other factors besides my fears and discomforts, I began recognizing some of the challenges doctors face when offering their expertise to restore good health. My situation has greatly improved from that September day, and I will be forever grateful to Doctor Johnson. It’s with much gratitude, respect, and best wishes for a wonderful retirement that I say goodbye to him, wishing him blessings always.
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