Orthopedic Surgeon Conveys Hope Through Personal Experience

October 18, 2016
Ed Rabinowitz

Today David Johnson, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon with MedStar Orthopaedic Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC. And while Johnson is a highly accomplished surgeon, it’s perhaps the events that occurred prior to his becoming a surgeon that have impacted his life the most.

David Johnson, MD, was enveloped with medical talk while growing up. His father was a doctor; his mother, grandmother, and two great aunts were nurses.

But those associations, plus his love for science, weren’t necessarily the greatest influence in his becoming an orthopedic surgeon. It was Johnson’s interest in anatomy, in how things work, that had the greatest impact.

“If I saw a dead frog in the pond, I’d dissect it,” Johnson recalls. “If I saw a worm I’d dissect it, just to see what was inside. Much like kids would open a clock to see how it worked, I was opening various animals.”

On his birthday, Johnson’s father would send him bottles of pickled frogs or pickled fish to dissect. And at Thanksgiving, while others focused on eating turkey, Johnson was interested in seeing the fowl’s different muscles.

“And I liked helping people, so it seemed the obvious path for me to choose.”

Today Johnson is an orthopedic surgeon with MedStar Orthopaedic Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, DC. And while Johnson is a highly accomplished surgeon, it’s perhaps the events that occurred prior to his becoming a surgeon that have impacted his life the most.

A circuitous route

Johnson competed in cross-country in high school, and as a result developed shin splints or stress fractures in his legs. Forget running, he had a hard time just walking. His coach told him to take the season off.

“Go to a pool and swim,” he was told. “Get your legs better. Go run in the pool like race horses do.”

But the only way he could use the pool during the winter was to join the swim team, so he did. Turns out Johnson found swimming to be more fun than cross-country. He also excelled to the point where two years later he qualified for the 1964 Olympic trials in Tokyo. He didn’t make the team, but it filled him with the desire to achieve that goal in 1968.

Fast-forward to 1968 and the summer Olympic trials. Johnson and his brothers bought their mother a fancy English bicycle, and Johnson decided to take it out for a ride.

“I thought I knew everything about bicycles,” Johnson says. “But it was an English bike, and the front brake was on the opposite hand from my French bike. I should have known that.”

He wound up flipping the bike and breaking his elbow. But that didn’t deter him.

“I put my arm in a plastic bag, because I had a cast on, and got in the water and kicked,” Johnson says. “I kicked for miles until I got tendonitis in my ankles and couldn’t kick any more.”

So he began stepping up and down on a stool to keep his heart in shape until he could get his arms strong enough to swim again. That determination, and a string of improbabilities, enabled him to capture the final spot in the 38-man US Olympic team.

More obstacles

Johnson and his teammates trained in Colorado Springs, which has an elevation above 6,000 feet. Getting acclimated to that altitude was critical since the Olympics were being held in Mexico City, just over 7,300 feet in elevation. Johnson excelled, and was in great shape when the team traveled to Mexico City.

Then disaster struck.

“Every team had to put one swimmer in the pool before the games just to try out the electric timers,” Johnson recalls. “So I got in and swam in this murky pool. When you put your foot down on the bottom big globs of dirt would come up.”

So Johnson swam. And he, along with everyone else who swam that day, developed a case of dysentery.

“I was taken out of the relay,” Johnson says. “I was vomiting that night and couldn’t lift my head from the pillow.”

Johnson lost a lot of fluid. When he arrived in Mexico he weighed 168 pounds. But by the time he could get out of bed he was down to 154 pounds.

“The doctors never started an IV,” he recalls. “They said, just drink some tea and you’ll be okay. American athletes should have better. That was another motivation for me to go into sports medicine.”

Ironically, Johnson was replaced in his event by teammate Mark Spitz, who would go on to capture seven gold medals four years later in Munich. But the disappointment was a solid learning experience.

“Success is never a straight line,” Johnson says. “How do you treat your failures? How do you treat your setbacks? If you refuse to become discouraged and double your efforts, keep pointing toward your goal, you can achieve anything you want to achieve.”

Athletic focus

Johnson’s experience prompted a career focused on sports medicine. He served as the US “skate doc” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, watching as speed skater Eric Heiden captured five gold medals, and the US hockey team pulled off the “miracle on ice” with its gold-medal win over the Soviet Union.

More recently, Johnson works with The Washington Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and touring companies that perform at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The associations have left a lasting impression.

“I think dancers are the most outstanding, best athletes around,” he says. “What’s demanded of them is not only extraordinary athletic feats, but they have to make it look absolutely effortless. It takes years of preparation to be able to do that.”

Johnson remains active despite a demanding schedule. He swims both casually and in selected races, enjoys tennis and gold, and occasional hikes. And his message to young athletes is born out of his own experiences.

“Sometimes, in spite of their best preparation, they get injured,” he says. “It’s a tremendous defeat in their mind. But what I try to convey to them is not to get discouraged. To keep working toward their goal. And even if they don’t reach it, good things will still happen.”