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Giving in Action: Katie Cox Johnson Memorial Scholarship

Posted by Morgan Kroll  on Tuesday, January 3, 2023 in Alumni News, Fall 2022, Giving in Action, Vanderbilt Community .

Compassionate, humble, hardworking, inspiring. Ask the members of the Class of 2007 how they remember Katie Cox Johnson, MD’07, and these are some of the many warm words you will hear. After Johnson died in 2019 at age 38 following a battle with multiple sclerosis and cervical cancer, her close friend, Jessica Sparks Lilley, MD’07, a pediatric endocrinologist practicing in Mississippi, decided to spearhead efforts to create the Katie Cox Johnson Scholarship in her honor.

“I can’t overstate how generous she was,” said Lilley. “She worked so hard and to have her life end so quickly and tragically, I feel we have to bring some beauty out of those ashes.”

Johnson made a tremendous impact on her patients, friends and community, and it is this legacy, as well as the significant adversity that she overcame to achieve her successes, that motivated Lilley and three others from the School of Medicine’s Class of 2007 — Behin Barahimi, BS’02, MD’07; Kimberly Ma, MD’07; and Julia Wood, MD’07 — to join forces to raise funds for an endowed scholarship in Johnson’s name for deserving students with great financial need at the School of Medicine. In the future, the scholarship may help cover not only tuition costs, but also unexpected hardship expenses for students.

Johnson came to Vanderbilt with the Canby Robinson Scholarship after graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Rhodes College in Memphis, and as valedictorian of her high school class in Powell, Tennessee. She quickly made her mark at the School of Medicine by co-founding, with classmate Kristina Collins, MD’07, the Shade Tree Clinic, which has served more than 4,000 patients since opening in 2004. The student-run clinic provides uninsured people in Nashville with comprehensive primary care and provides medical school students with vital clinical experience. A preference in awarding the scholarship will go to students who volunteer at the Shade Tree Clinic.

“I didn’t have time in medical school to do much more beyond my studies, yet she and Kristina started a clinic that serves the community and endures today,” says Wood, a psychiatrist in Knoxville, Tennessee, who, along with her husband Kevin James, MD’07, an internist and geriatrician, were eager to support the scholarship in their classmate’s memory. “It’s an amazing legacy that she has left Vanderbilt.”

Even with full-tuition scholarship support, Johnson struggled financially during medical school as her living expenses ballooned once diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Like many medical students, she did not have disability insurance. She also came from an economically disadvantaged background, and at times, turned to high-interest loans to pay for unexpected hardships.

“I wish something like this had been available for Katie,” says Barahimi. “I hope that others beyond our class will continue to contribute to this scholarship — there is a need for a financial safety net for medical school, because oftentimes people don’t consider all of the expenses that come up.” In addition to contributing financial support, Barahimi, an oculoplastic, orbital and reconstructive surgeon, and associate professor in the Department of Ophthalmology at VUMC, has also offered to serve as a contact and resource for scholarship recipients, advising them on the financial literacy resources available to them, and to serve as a link between students and alumni mentors.

More than 30 classmates from the Class of 2007 have contributed to the scholarship so far, as have several alumni from the Classes of 2006 and 2008. Together, they have reached the initial funding milestone of $100,000, but their fundraising efforts continue as their goal is to help as many students as possible.

“It has been heartwarming and touching to see so many individuals contribute — it makes this endowed scholarship unique,” said Ma, associate professor in Maternal-Fetal Medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine. Ma, Barahimi, Lilley and Wood are all serving as the Reunion Gift Co-Chairs for the Class of 2007. “I know if Katie were here today, she would, without hesitation, give to a scholarship fund. That is the epitome of Katie. I hope other students will not need to struggle financially as she did during her education and training.”

Lilley agrees: “Katie would have been blown away that we raised this much support so quickly,” she said. “She didn’t know how loved she was and how special she was to people around her. I wish she knew how readily people stepped up to honor her.”

To make a gift to support the Katie Cox Johnson Scholarship, visit; or contact Kyle Brooks at or 419-515-2240. Gifts of all sizes make an impact and are greatly appreciated. Any gifts made by Dec. 31 also count toward Reunion class totals.