— Dr. Steve Johnson has seen a lot of changes in Cleburne in 40 years.
“The town certainly has grown. There’s a lot more diversification of industry in the community,” he said. “The whole community seems to be growing as part of the Metroplex.”
Johnson, too, is undergoing a big change. The 68-year-old will retire at the end of this month from Family Medicine Associates, the clinic he co-founded with Dr. J. Mike White in 1980.
Johnson’s journey to Cleburne in 1970 by way of Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth to TCU and then to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston was merely the start of a career in medicine and ... change.
The profession has been transformed since his start in the business.
“The number of medicines and the different types of medications that we have for common every day problems has just multiplied tremendously,” he said. “And medications are so much better and safer than they were in the past.”
Johnson said that doctors have more choices of medications to prescribe today. A greater number of medicine is available to treat high blood pressure, diabetes and even depression today than yesteryear.
“There has been a tremendous proliferation and ongoing development of newer medications that are better and offer us choices that we didn’t have in the past,” Johnson said.
“A lot of the newer medications are relatively expensive, but as they are present for a longer period of time the patents expire,” he said. “There’s a lot of medications that people can buy today cheaper than 40 years ago, if they were available.”
There also have been advances in surgical techniques, he explained.
“From the standpoint of surgical procedures, the whole area in orthopedics of joint replacement and spinal-type surgeries that were very rare in the older days are much more common and more beneficial now a days too,” he said.
These advances have decreased the amount of time patients stay in the hospital, which he said helps the whole system and cuts costs.
One of the most common operations — gall bladder surgery — can now be done with liposcopic surgery.
“Instead of people being in the hospital with a tube down their stomach for 10 days, many times those folks spend a night in the hospital and go home the next day,” he said. “Even my mother who lived here in town for number of years — she was 83 or 84 years old — went in, had her gall bladder out and was home, up and cooking the next day.”
In the area of vascular surgery, he said, there have been advances in the way doctors deal with heart-attack patients.
“When I came to town, I was one of the doctors that helped with a lot of the Santa Fe Railroad employees at the time. That was the big industry in town 40 years ago and for a long period of time,” he said. “Those gentlemen, when they developed heart attacks, their care was handled through the Scott and White system. Once we had them stabilized in Cleburne, they would go down to the Scott and White hospitals.”
Johnson explained that heart attack patients at that time had few options other than medications to treat them and blood thinners, which were sometimes used for years.
“With the advent of vascular studies and image studies, we’re able to balloon blockages and put stents in them, which saves even the bypass surgeries that were common for a long time,” he said “You’ve got a procedure that is still an invasive procedure, but it’s much less risky than opening somebody’s chest and it’s proven to be very effective in recouping people’s health from damaged blood vessels.
Retirement, too, obviously will be a big change for Johnson.
After graduating from Arlington Heights High School in 1960, Johnson earned a bachelor’s degree from TCU and graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston in 1967.
Johnson wanted to start a general or family practice in Texas, but not necessarily in a large city like Dallas or Fort Worth.
“I looked in a number of parts of the state that I would be happy living in and raising a family. I looked in areas in East Texas and areas surrounding the Metroplex,” he said. “Cleburne was pretty much the ideal situation. My brother-in-law, Dr. James Johnson, who was an internal medicine specialist for a number of years, helped me find a situation with Dr. Elmo Clark and Dr. Gates Barker that had been here for about 20 years at that time. I joined them in practice in 1970.”
As far as retirement, Johnson isn’t sure he’s going to like it.
“It’s just hard to slow down in the field of medicine,” he said. “There’s something unique about the patient-doctor relationship. You really can’t have a full-time doctor that’s not there full time.”
He’ll do a little work for Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Cleburne, and he’ll continue as volunteer medical director at the HOPE Medical and Dental Clinic.
And he plans to spend more time with his seven grandchildren.
“My wife and I still plan on living in the community,” he said. “I’ve got grandkids playing ball locally, and I can go to ballgames now five nights a week and don’t have to worry about my practice.”
Diane Westcott, executive director of the Hope Clinic, said she is happy and thankful that Johnson will continue to serve as medical director and volunteer at the clinic after his retirement.
“I have known Dr. Johnson for 30 years. He has been here faithfully every month,” she said. “He has been a valuable resource in helping us at the clinic. He is a big-hearted man, and we are thankful we are not losing him.”
Johnson said he and his wife of 43 years, Nancy, also plan to travel.
He is looking forward to going to Nanjing, China, next year to attend a dedication of a new medical tower at Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital, which was founded by his great-great grandfather, Dr. William Edward Macklin, in 1890.
“He started a hospital over there in a community where it was just he and a couple of nurses. They did what they can do,” he said. “They’ve taken the old original hospital and rebuilt it and have it as a museum. They’ve erected a bust of him in a garden beside the hospital.”
The hospital now employs 2,486 staff, including 2,022 medical staff members, 257 senior physicians, 198 attending doctors, 250 resident doctors, 1,042 nurses and 130 professors and associate professors as the hospital also serves as a teaching base for the Nanjing University Medical School.
The future of medicine
Johnson doesn’t know what to make out of the health care overhaul recently passed in Congress. He’s skeptical how it will be implemented and said he doesn’t think there are enough doctors to implement the program as big as what the federal government is trying to assume responsibility for.
“Hopefully, organized medicine will have some opportunity to exert some of their wisdom in some of the decisions that are made,” he said. “It’s really scary in a lot of ways for doctors that are trying to operate offices that have had the crunch of lowered income and lowered payments, yet our expenses don’t drop.”
Johnson does believe that people in the future will need to take greater responsibility for their own care.
“All a doctor can do is give a patient guidance,” he said. “We can’t make people stop smoking. We can’t make them control their alcohol intake. We can’t make them not abuse medication, and those things alone have a significant impact on the cost of health care.”
And the lack of access of care for some residents continues to concern him.
“It troubles me that there are people who do try to do right and take care of themselves and can’t access care,” he said. “It also concerns me that we provide good care or better care for prisoners than we do for folks that can’t afford care. To me, there’s something wrong with our system when that happens.”
David Moore, Family Medicine Association clinic administrator, said Johnson’s presence in the clinic he founded will be missed.
“Dr. Steve is one of the most patient and humble physicians I have ever had the pleasure of working with. He is truly involved and invested in the health of his patients,” he said. “His absence leaves a vacancy in the foundation of Family Medicine Associations that will be missed. The citizens of Johnson County have been truly blessed to have Dr. Steve taking care of them for the past 40 years.”
Johnson said he is overwhelmed with the number of patients that have come in to wish him well since the retirement was announced.
“It makes it harder to leave,” he said. “They have done their best to follow what I have asked them to do, and I think it reflects on them, as well as perhaps a little bit on me, that they’ve been able to do fairly well. I wish the best of health to all my patients and to everybody.”