August 6, 2019

When a surgeon can’t be a surgeon anymore

Photo of a surgeon's gloved hand
Drucker/SCGH alum Walt Johnson stood at the crossroads when his brain surgery career ended. Photo credit: shutterstock

(Editor’s note: a version of this story appears in the summer 2019 issue of the Flame magazine)


Dr. Walter Johnson (EMBA ’10; MPH ’12) says that the most important thing for doctors to remember is this: Keep on learning.

“You can’t rest on your laurels and just coast,” he said in a recent interview. “One hundred years ago, if you had a medical degree, you were probably the most educated guy on the block. But now that’s not true, and I think every medical student should consider getting an MBA or an MPH or some other type of advanced degree.”

It was Johnson’s own insatiable curiosity—his commitment to learning and adapting—that led to his being named head of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Emergency and Essential Surgical Care Program in 2015 after having worked with the organization since 2012.

But the path that led him to the WHO was unexpected—someone else might even consider it tragic. Johnson’s entire professional life—from his Loma Linda Medical School days to his time as a surgeon and professor there—had been focused on academic neurosurgery, operating on patients, and teaching residents.

There are a lot of things in medicine that you can do with numbness in your hand, but brain surgery isn’t one of them.

In 2009, everything changed. Johnson began dropping instruments and developed numbness in his right hand—the result of a combination of a pinched nerve in the neck and carpal tunnel syndrome.

When multiple surgeries failed to correct the problem, he found himself at a professional crossroads. As serious as it was, Johnson applies a little dry humor to describe what happened next.

“There are a lot of things in medicine that you can do with numbness in your hand,” he deadpanned, “but brain surgery isn’t one of them.”

At the time, Johnson was finishing an MBA at the Drucker School. He said the university’s School of Community & Global Health (SCGH) caught his attention.

“I really was up one of those proverbial blind alleys where you have no idea what to do next,” he recalled. “I thought, what the hell. I’ve always been interested in international health. Perhaps I can do something useful there.”

Johnson with Beth Zachary (MA, Executive Management, ’92) at 2019 Drucker Day
Johnson with Beth Zachary (MA, Executive Management, ’92) at Drucker Day: “I thought, what the hell. I’ve always been interested in international health. Perhaps I can do something useful there.”

While pursuing a master of public health degree at SCGH, Johnson heard a lecture about surgery and global health by Dr. Bruce Steffes, a surgeon who had spent years working in Africa. That lecture, Johnson said, changed his life.

“I experienced an epiphany,” he says. “I knew everything about academic surgery and how to run a department, and public health was clearly the next step in putting my skill set together with something that I could carry forward.”

Johnson met Dr. Meena Cherian, head of the WHO’s Emergency and Essential Surgical Care program (and Johnson’s predecessor), and Cherian invited him to Geneva as “a sort of intern” to learn how the organization dealt with public health on a global scale.

Johnson says his MBA training challenged the ‘lone wolf’ attitude that most surgeons have.

“When Meena retired,” Johnson said, “the WHO called me up and said, ‘We’ve had a lot of interns who’ve been through here, but we don’t have any old guys that know about the program and could run it. Are you interested?’ ”

According to Johnson, one of the biggest challenges that he’s faced at the WHO is the mistaken notion (even within the organization) that surgery is prohibitively expensive and not as pressing as other issues.

“If you look at simple surgeries or essential ones like C-sections and hernia repairs or a broken bone that can be set, the costs aren’t prohibitive,” he says. “It’s not transplants, heart surgery, or brain surgery here. It’s just basic stuff that the largest number of people in a population needs—the most common diagnoses.”

Johnson says that his Drucker MBA has helped him in his WHO role because it profoundly changed his way of thinking. While surgeons are taught to be “lone wolves,” he explained, the MBA taught him about management and team dynamics and has complemented his SCGH training in his WHO role.

Because the United Nations—“in its wisdom,” Johnson said—insists on mandatory retirement at 65, he has about three more years before he has to leave. Future plans may include teaching some classes at CGU, but whatever the future foretells, Johnson doesn’t seem overly concerned.

Adaptation has become second nature to the good doctor, and he’s determined to continue following his own advice and keep on learning.


Read more of the latest issue of the Flame magazine here