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When asked "What's something you enjoy doing outside of work?" hematologist Clarissa Johnson, M.D., quickly answered, "Gardening." When you look at the life and work of Dr. Johnson, it's easy to see the parallels between this pastime and the path she's taken.
At a young age, Dr. Johnson had a passion for reading, which was a fertile ground on which her desire to learn would flourish. By the time junior high rolled around, her favorite reading topics had found a new focus.
"I was just drawn to the subject of diseases...any and all diseases. Even reading fictional books about diseases, like leukemia and lupus, fascinated me." Dr. Johnson said.
Coupling this wish to learn as much as possible with a love for kids, the natural next step would be to pursue becoming a doctor. As she progressed through college, hematology and oncology emerged as the right path for her, which then led to specializing in sickle cell.
Given that sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that affects approximately 8% of all African Americans, Dr. Johnson felt a very real connection to help. She explained, "People who look like me may be underserved and with a disease that disproportionately impacts Black people, I want to do all I can to prevent that feeling. I want no one to feel underserved or overlooked as long as I'm a part of their care."
Since sickle cell is typically detected and diagnosed at a young age and can be a lifelong disease, Dr. Johnson views her role as much larger than just treating the illness or even the young patient. The responsibility she has is to prepare them for life itself. Much like the time she may spend in a garden cultivating and tending to her plants or vegetables, she's providing her patients with the strong roots and nutrients they need to grow into self-sufficient adults.
"I know that I'm not their parent, but I'm still very much invested in them as a person," she said. "When you have built that relationship and watched them grow up through the years, it can be quite difficult to let them go out into the world. So my goal for them is they go into adult care educated about their disease, invested in their own health care and overall equipped and confident to move forward on their own."
That preparation for the patient is rooted in one of the main priorities for Dr. Johnson when it comes to her patients – education. Happily embracing the name 'Queen of Handouts,' she is a champion of thorough and abundant patient education materials for the parents and the child.
She explained, "Anytime we see a patient, it can be an overwhelming experience and it's not realistic for their parents or them to retain all the information that is provided. That's why having the handouts, visuals and supplemental information that they can easily refer to is so important. It boils down to the fact that the more understanding they have are about their disease, the better compliance they will have in treatment and taking care of themselves. That sets the stage for the rest of their lives."
And when those patients transition to adult care confidently and successfully, she knows that it was all worth it.
"We set the bar for all of their future physicians and care providers," she shared. "Recently, I had one young lady come back to me and discuss her impressions of her new specialist. She admitted that, based upon our long relationship, she felt empowered to ask the right questions of them to make sure she felt comfortable and confident that she'd get the same level of care she'd been used to getting. That's a very real measure of success for our program in my eyes."
This is so true. And it's because of physicians, like Dr. Johnson, and all who place an emphasis on giving these kids the best life and opportunities possible, we can all proudly say #WeAreCookChildrens.