There are certainly faster routes to become a physician, but for Anna Johanson, artist, musician and environmental advocate, the scenic road to medical school was the right path.
“For me, it just didn’t work to graduate with an environmental sciences degree and go right into medical school,” says Johanson, who took all her premed classes during her undergraduate years, knowing that someday down the road she’d become a physician. “There are just so many things to do in life.”
Her undergraduate degree at Antioch College, which alternates semesters with internships, prepared her for diverse experiences. As a college student, she worked on an American Indian reservation, in a Brazilian shantytown and at a battered women’s shelter. One summer, she traveled with 10 other students focusing on environmental contamination in low-income communities. Upon graduation, she ran the program for two years, following the watershed and researching pollution from the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, down to New Orleans.
“We visited poor African-American neighborhoods right along the Mississippi,” she says. “There used to be plantations along the river; now there are (industrial) plants.”
The oral histories of those residents were published in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Community Journal. One woman’s story, in particular, stands out in her mind.
“She won a relocation lawsuit against Shell. That was huge, but that meant that her community was relocated. Everyone was dispersed from that small town. You win the case, but you lose your roots and your community.”
She realized then that the poor had few medical advocates.
“Just even believing someone’s story is important,” says Johanson, 35, who has been selected by her peers to be inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. “As physicians, sometimes we have to look outside the box of what we think we know.”
From there, she moved to Portland, Ore., for graduate school and worked in a clinic for homeless youths, where she helped with tattoo removals. “I really liked the rawness of the work. Things are really in your face and immediate. There’s a lot that needs to happen right now. It’s not a see-you-in-two-weeks thing. It’s immediate.”
All the while, Johanson continued with her art – hand-cut glass mosaics through her website Kickin Glass Mosaics. She admits she considered abandoning her medical school dream for art.
“I was doing it fulltime, and I was doing well. It’s the closest I came to saying, ‘Well, my art stuff is really taking off and it’s pretty fun. Maybe this is what I should do.’”
While she was working in a community clinic in Black Hawk she decided the scenic route to medical school had reached its destination. And she found the intervening years were good practice for the next four, very challenging years in medical school.
“I definitely think it helped that I’ve worked with a lot of people in a lot of different situations so I wasn’t nervous with patients. And I knew how to work with a team. No one needed to tell me to be nice to the medical techs. I’ve been a med tech. I know how it feels.
“And I was able to keep pretty good balance. Medical school was rough but it wasn’t the worst thing I ever did. I still did art, I had a relationship, I exercised.”
She also helped start the Dean’s Gallery, which exhibits student and faculty art in the Dean’s Office in Building 500.
Johanson will perform her residency in emergency medicine at Indiana University. She chose the program for its strong advocacy track.
“It’s funny. I thought I’d do primary care - that seemed obvious. But what I really like about the emergency room is that you’re a safety net. You see everybody and what you do a lot of is primary care, and that’s what really appeals to me. You get all ages, all walks of life, people with great insurance, people who are homeless. And you have to do it like that,” she says, snapping he fingers. “You don’t get the benefit of a long history.”
She plans to continue working on her art.
“The plan is to do both,” she says, wincing a little when she thinks of the move to Indianapolis. She and her boyfriend, also an artist, work in metals. “We have to move an entire metal shop there.”