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Dr. Terry Johnson and his colleagues during training
Feb 01 2023

Reflections on 30 years in medicine

February 1, 2023  /   Emergency, Providers  /   8-minute read

Dr. Terry Johnson to retire and pursue new adventures

If you know Dr. Johnson, you know he humbly “does his job,” at one time delivering babies and now working in the Emergency Department.

Most people have had some interaction with Dr. Johnson; after all, he’s been in Mora for 34 years. He chuckled to himself, remembering that at the height of his career delivered a baby every week for several years.

Fast forward to 2023, Dr. Johnson, looking a bit more aged yet with the same kind eyes behind his glasses, still manages to surprise many with his spunky choices of words, anonymous generosity, passion for equitable healthcare, and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility for fairness in a world that isn’t fair at all.

After 34 years of practicing medicine, Johnson has finally decided to retire.

It took the promise of his favorite soda, Diet Mountain Dew, and some persuasion before he agreed to share his story. He isn’t great at accepting compliments and is probably unaware of how many lives he has impacted in this community.

Emergency medicine—a small-town doctor finds a better fit

Originally from Cloquet, Johnson attended medical school at the University of Minnesota Duluth and completed his residency at Fairview/St. Mary’s Hospital, which at the time was the busiest obstetrics hospital in the state. Sometime during his residency, he decided that a small town was where he wanted to practice family medicine. The Mora community has undoubtedly benefited from this decision. Over his career, Johnson cared for patients, sometimes generations of families, from birth to death, the “full gamut,” he said.

While as much as he has enjoyed practicing in family practice, Johnson said there were dozens of reasons that drew him to emergency medicine. About fifteen years ago, Kanabec Hospital/Allina Health clinics seemed well positioned and could hire additional family medicine providers. At the same time, the insurance company’s patient management controls began to frustrate Johnson significantly. Meanwhile, the volumes in the emergency department (ED) steadily increased, so transitioning to the emergency department made sense; plus, the energy and pace of the emergency medicine matched his earnest personality.

But among all the professionally driven reasons for the switch, a personal one stood out: the dad of three wanted to be more involved in his kids’ lives.

“My children were all heavily involved in sports – cross-country skiing and running, softball, track, and tennis – and I realized my 9-5 clinic schedule and rounds meant I would miss everything,” said Johnson. “If I was in the ER, I had more control of my schedule and could go to all after-school competitions.”

A conversation with an old friend sparks a new course

When Johnson was younger, he always pursued what he now perceived as second best. “A psychological thing,” he recollects. Why go to Best Buy and purchase the newest TV when you could get the second-best one or last year’s model for less money?

Growing up, Johnson imagined himself as a physician. But as he transitioned from high school to early college, he began to second-guess and thought dentistry school made more sense. He even started practicing on his own teeth to hone his skills.

Side note, all but one tooth is still intact!

Then, when he was 20 years old, an incident forever changed his life.

“Afterward, I was talking to my best friend’s dad, a Lutheran pastor,” reflected Johnson. “We were talking about life and what had happened, and he said to me, ‘You always wanted to be a doctor, so why are you planning to go to dental school? Go for what you really want.'”

Now, 42 years later, Johnson is again going for what he really wants – and deserves, retirement.

Recapping his career in 5 questions

Truth be told, Dr. Johnson wasn’t at all thrilled about telling his story. We managed to get these answers to five questions. These highlights hardly do justice to the entirety of his career; they merely give a quick snippet of what stood out.

What was your career highlight?

Little Royce’s big miracle. I vividly remember the day as we had just had a shift change in the ER. Dr. Donner had just completed a C-section, and Dr. Bostrom was my night shift replacement. We just so happened to have three of the hospital’s most experienced doctors on duty. The head of the anesthesia department was there, along with the ED charge and a team of seasoned nurses. A motor vehicle accident near Mora Lake was incoming, involving the near drowning of a 2-year-old child. On scene, the child was trapped underwater, and the EMTs there entirely disregarded their own safety to get him to us as quickly as possible. The 2-year-old boy survived.

Dr. Terry Johnson and his patient
Dr. Johnson with Royce Rivera

I’m a CALS (Comprehensive Advanced Life Support) instructor, and the treatment of hypothermia is covered in the curriculum. In that particular situation, I was prepared and, thanks to their assistance, could oversee the resuscitation efforts and direct personnel on what was needed next.

What advice do you have for new doctors and healthcare providers?

The singular most important thing is to have a good life-work balance. You want to be able to keep your sanity and relationships – and to be there for your family. Nobody on their deathbed says they wished they worked more. You need to carve out as much time as you can for yourself and for your family and keep that balance. Stress and working too much can eat people up.

Who was your mentor?

There are three California-based doctors who have been doing medical education since the 1970s: Drs. Richard Bukata, Jerome Hoffman, and Mel Herbert. For decades, they’ve known and taught what was up and coming and “famous in the field of emergency medicine.” They have no idea who I am – however, when I first went to a conference that Rick and Jerry were offering, it changed how I learned. Their insights really made me a better provider.

What is your mantra?

The secret of life is helping others and having fun.

What will you miss about practicing at Welia Health?

I always wanted to be a small-town doctor, and living here in this community was good. There are people I will miss, particularly the people I worked closely with. I will also miss the patients. I’ve loved establishing relationships with people, helping them through difficult times, and seeing the improvements they’ve made in their health and lives.

Finally, a different adventurous phase

A different adventurous phase (or, as Dr. Johnson jokes, the “arthritis phase”) of life is next, with time to explore new pursuits.

While Dr. Johnson has loved the adrenaline and pace of the ER, he is looking forward to slowing down a bit, hiking and daily walks with his dog Ruby. Enjoy leisurely reading more, with a goal to listen to a weekly book. Current favorite genres include historical fiction, mystery/spy novels, and science fiction/fantasy. Maybe tackle some remodeling projects. He also wants to explore doing some writing. “Everybody says they have a novel inside of them, and I always intended to write mine,” said Johnson. “Maybe it’s something I can do with more free time.”

Traveling is also in his plans. He and his wife Julie are planning a trip to Norway, which will include a visit to Finland. Greece and New Zealand are also on the list, but Finland is at the top because Julie is 100 percent Finnish. “We’re at the adventurous point in our lives,” said Johnson. “It’s an exciting place to be.”

Although the team at Welia Health will miss Dr. Johnson, everyone wishes him the best on his next adventures and looks forward to seeing pictures of Maisie, Zoey, Arya, and Ruby, and his travels – and maybe (no pressure) even reading his debut novel.

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