Johnson recounts lessons from parents, Watkins
Kevin Johnson, M.D., M.S., second from left, delivered Tuesday’s Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., Lecture. With him are, from left, André Churchwell, M.D., Adrian Cadar, Bedford Waters, M.D., Chike Abana and George Hill, Ph.D. (photo by Anne Rayner)
As the guest speaker for the 15th annual Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., Lecture, Kevin Johnson, M.D., M.S., provided an energetic and entertaining overview of how his personal and professional accomplishments were influenced by “Lessons and Other Things My Parents Didn’t Teach Me.”
Johnson, Senior Vice President for Health Information Technology, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Biomedical Informatics and professor of Pediatrics, grew up in Baltimore, where his was one of the first African-American families in a mostly white suburban neighborhood.
“My parents never taught us to hate. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have feelings about all sorts of things related to how they grew up,” Johnson said.
He spoke of learning early the importance of getting along and communicating with a wide variety of people. This lesson was reinforced during his years as a medical student and a pediatric resident at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, where he was first introduced to Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., who would become a valued mentor and friend to him.
“My parents never suggested giving up,” said Johnson, a lesson which led him to study a solution to suboptimal medication management within the school system, where children often self-administer medicine. The result was the My Medi Health Project, a medication reminder sent via pager and cellphone. This idea ultimately led to a number of applications now available on smartphones.
“My parents never encouraged entitlement, and I’ll say this is a good thing and a bad thing,” Johnson said. “I had mononucleosis in my first year of college and never knew that it was possible to go to teachers and ask them to forgive me for all the homework I hadn’t done. I did all of the homework I had missed for two and a half weeks. It forced me to believe I could get a lot of things done on my own.”
Thanks to the lessons imparted by his parents and the example set by Watkins, Johnson was the first African-American to be named Outstanding Senior at Dickinson College; he was accepted to Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; he was the first African-American chief resident at Hopkins; he was the first African-American to be elected to the American College of Medical Informatics, a professional society for informatics, and the first African-American promoted to full professor with tenure at Vanderbilt.
“Most importantly, I was in a generation where all of us had “firsts” because of the work that was done by the generation before us.”
André Churchwell, M.D., Senior Associate Dean for Diversity Affairs, greeted the crowd gathered in Light Hall by acknowledging the loss of Watkins, who died in April 2015.
“If he were here, he would tell us to march on like soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement. He allowed us to use him as a symbol for diversity and its importance, here at VUSM, at Johns Hopkins and through his mentoring of hundreds of academic minority physicians from many institutions,” Churchwell said, noting that 2016 is the 50th Anniversary of Watkins’ entry into VUSM.
Churchwell also recognized Watkins’ sisters who were present, Annie Garraway, Ph.D., and Doristine Minott.
The Levi Watkins Jr., M.D., awards were given to Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., President and CEO of VUMC and dean of VUSM (faculty/administration); Ciara Conway and Brittney Hills (house officers); Petria Thompson and Maria Ladino (medical students) and Joy Gamble George (graduate student) for outstanding contributions to diversity.