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From Philosopher to Physician: Caroline Johnson, M.D. (’97)

Posted: May 23, 2013

There is no such thing as a typical day on the job for Caroline Johnson, M.D. (’97). As an internist, she is likely to confront any number of illnesses and maladies, and as a traveling physician, she is likely to do so just about anywhere.

Sometimes she volunteers for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, providing pro-bono care to patients in her home city of Phoenix. Occasionally she puts in shifts in the pediatric unit at a local urban medical center. Most of the time, however — about 30 weeks out of the year — she is on the road, completing round-the-clock shifts that can range from 7 to 21 days at remote hospitals across the United States. As a member of the Rural Physicians Group, she serves small communities that are unable to maintain their own, permanent medical staffs, and instead import physicians for brief, intensive stays.

“Usually the hospital will have an emergency-room doctor, but for everything else, it’s me,” says Dr. Johnson. “It can be anything from an infection of the skin to someone coming in with pain in the chest. In extreme cases, we can airlift a patient elsewhere, but for the most part, we don’t have the benefit of a specialist. I can’t call in a gastrointestinal doctor to come see a case of liver disease. It’s up to me. I have to be prepared for situations I could not possibly have expected.”

A Work of Mercy

Looking back, Dr. Johnson now sees the College’s program of liberal education as ideal preparation for a medical career — but that is not why she enrolled some 20 years ago. It was not the four years of natural science or the breadth of the classical curriculum that appealed to her, but the College’s students. “They were very outgoing, very friendly, very genuine,” she recalls of a trip to campus while in high school. “They were the first and most poignant example of what I was going to get into.”

Dr. Johnson entered the College in 1993 with her brother, Benjamin, who went on to marry a classmate, Brigit (McNally ’97), and is now a father of four and a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps. Reflecting on her and Benjamin’s time on campus, Dr. Johnson says, “It solidified and blossomed the bud of faith for us both.” Four years later, she left the College with — she thought — a strong sense of what she wanted to do with her life: study philosophy. “I had applied and was accepted to the Angelicum in Rome, with a long-term plan to go into education,” Dr. Johnson says. “But the Lord kept leading me, by way of little signs in my life, suggesting that He had something else in mind for me.”

What that “something else” was first became apparent shortly after graduation, when she and her brother paid a visit to Rev. Thomas Conn, S.J., a beloved chaplain at the College who was then dying of cancer. They were blessed to be with Fr. Conn at his deathbed, witnessing his passing into eternal life as well as the corporal works of mercy administered by those attending to him. “I remember watching his nurse,” says Dr. Johnson. “She had this nice, practical approach to medicine. That really stuck with me.”

A Change of Plans

In short order, Dr. Johnson abandoned her pursuit of philosophy to become a physician. She returned to her childhood home in Western Canada and enrolled at the University of Victoria, where she completed the prerequisite courses to apply to medical school. Although she could have pursued her study of medicine more quickly had she taken the prerequisites as an undergraduate, Dr. Johnson does not begrudge the great books curriculum she studied at the College. “If I had to do it over again 100 times, I would not do anything differently,” she insists.

“In this life, there’s really only one goal, and that’s to get to Heaven at the end and to serve God here. To do that you need to prepare — no matter whether you are a ditch-digger, a garbage man, or a neonatologist — you have to have the proper formation, and you cannot get that in modern medicine today,” Dr. Johnson says. “They can teach you the science. They can teach you the techniques. They can teach you the latest breakthroughs. But they cannot teach you the love of God through the soul of another person. They cannot teach you Christian charity. They cannot impress upon you that this corporal work of mercy is what it is.”

Dr. Johnson’s experience at the College proved invaluable not only for her personal and spiritual formation, but also for the medical-school admissions process. “When I was applying, the schools looked at me as a nontraditional student, in large part because of the classes I had taken, and they loved it,” she says. “They told me that to my face, ‘We wish we had more students like you because you have a different perspective that we cannot teach.’”

Medical School and Beyond

In 2002, as she was preparing for her first year of studies at Rush Medical College in Chicago, Dr. Johnson underwent a routine physical examination that resulted in a shocking discovery — a malignant ovarian tumor. “That led to treatment and surgery and all the other stuff,” she says, but remarkably, it neither deterred nor delayed her plans.

“The Lord obviously wanted me to go through with medical school, because He gave me the extra strength; and I didn’t have to take any time off or have any special accommodations, which I was really grateful for,” she says. She did, however, begin her first year at Rush with no hair, and she endured a full year of cancer treatment alongside her studies. By her second year, the cancer was in full remission, and a full head of curly hair had returned.

To her surprise, the workload at medical school was less difficult than she had feared it would be. “I found that studying through medical school was much easier than anything I did at the College,” she says. “When you go through four years of liberal education, your brain forms these pathways that are then there forever. It conditions your brain in order to amass more information.” Not wanting to be constrained by a narrow specialty, she opted for a combined specialty of internal medicine and pediatrics, owing to her love of children. She subsequently became Board Certified in both specialties.

After graduating in the top third of her class, Dr. Johnson was offered residencies at several prestigious universities, including Yale, Baylor, and the University of Southern California. Yet she chose a four-year program that operated through four separate hospitals in Phoenix — one serving veterans, one children, a private general hospital, and a public one — because of the diversity of experiences it offered. She then worked briefly as a hospitalist in Phoenix after completing her residency in 2010. She joined the Rural Physicians Group the next year.

A Country Doctor

“We tend to think of under-served patients as mostly being in inner cities, but residents of rural areas can be under-served in their own ways,” Dr. Johnson says. “They often don’t have access to routine medical care; they may have to travel miles and miles and miles just to see a doctor. Their symptoms can go undiagnosed — and untreated — for a long time.”

Hers is a profession of limits. Sometimes there is no cure for what ails a patient, or sometimes the patient is unwilling to make the difficult decisions that getting healthy requires. Thus it is often the responsibility of the internist to speak hard truths, but with love. “Being able to deliver bad news or disagree with patients when I think what they are doing is going to harm them is crucial. You need to be able to talk to them directly, truthfully, clearly,” she says. That part of her practice reminds her of the “training” she received around the classroom tables at the College, engaging her classmates in Socratic dialogues. “That process of trying to convince others of the truth of what you see, and present it in a way that’s accessible, it comes home very strongly in medicine.”

Above all, though, it is her faith that enables her to embrace both the limitations of medicine and the demanding schedule her career imposes. While serving in rural hospitals, she steals away for daily Mass as often as possible, and finds herself constantly in prayer as she goes about her work. “If I were unable to put on the lenses of faith, I think I would burn out, or be embittered, seeing so many cases of people destroying themselves through their choices. I have to remind myself that I am just here to make things a little bit better, and maybe be a witness.”

When she is not traveling, she shares a home with her sister Katherine (’06), a nurse in Phoenix. She also occasionally gives talks to area medical students, advising them about the medical profession, and reminding them of their purpose as physicians. “Our society can put men on the moon. We can make fancy phones and computers. But the human body is a mystery to us and always will be,” she says. “As doctors, we need to have a basic recognition of who we are in relation to God and the world, and a sense of humility.”

Calling to mind a lesson she first learned at Fr. Conn’s bedside, she notes, “Although there is much we cannot do, there is also so much we can do. It is our gift to help others in their suffering.”


Caroline Johnson, M.D. (’97)
Kathleen Murphy (’16) on integrated curriculum

“I think about the entire world differently since I have come here. I have learned certain truths, whether in the natural sciences or philosophy, that I never would have imagined I could know.”

– Kathleen Murphy (’16)

Cheshire, Connecticut

“Thomas Aquinas College is lending a helpful hand to the Church to fulfill her mission. There is no doubt that this Christian environment that is nurtured here is the main cause why there have been so many responses to the call of God to the priesthood and to the consecrated life in the female and male students of your College.”

– Zenon Cardinal Grocholewski

Prefect Emeritus

Congregation for Catholic Education