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Is there a doctor? Dr. Artie Johnson would have said no, but there’s a math teacher
October 01, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Photo by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen - Dr. Alan ‘Artie’ Johnson discusses a patient’s chart with staff nurse Erika Buckius last week at his office in the Gering Family Medicine clinic for one of the last times. Johnson retires today.

A lot can happen in almost 40 years, and a lot did. It is said a man is not measured by time but how he lives it. A look back at the Gering clinic’s Dr. Alan “Artie” Johnson’s career in medicine was perhaps measured by the 20 patients he saw every day.

Or, maybe it was measured by setting his own record to examine 100 kids for their sports physicals. “I did a morning in Morrill. I did an afternoon in Banner County,” Johnson said. “It was one hot sweaty doctor and 40 sweaty Banner County kids who had been out working in the hay field. And, then I did an evening at the Gering clinic. By God, we got a hundred by the end of the night.”

Or, maybe it was that he, Dr. Matt Haslem, and Dr. David Imes could boast more than 100 years of combined experience at their Gering practice during the ‘80s. “And, I’ll bet there aren’t many other places in Nebraska, or the country, that can say they had three family doctors in one place with 100 years between them,” he said.

Retiring today, Johnson will have logged 39 years, three months and one day on the job. Just shy of four decades, Johnson said he’s retiring because it’s time. “I decided I’m ready,” he said.

He remembers his first day in Gering, but can’t say what day specifically it was. “I can’t remember if I started the day before July 4 or the day after in 1976,” he said. “That was the Bicentennial. I sat on the front step of my house, tired as all get out, unloading a U-Haul and watching the fireworks in Scottsbluff.”

By contrast, his first day at the clinic was quiet. He had seen only two or three patients.

The Gering clinic, which came under new ownership in 2008 was renamed Regional West – Family Medicine Gering. Yet, it remains the office where Dr. Johnson worked for almost 40 years, saying his mentor Dr. Jerry Fuhrman, who worked in the same building, was the reason he came.

He also was encouraged by another friend. Because new physicians were required by the University of Nebraska Medical School in Omaha to perform four-month rotations in various parts throughout the state, his friend Dr. Imes did his residency in Scottsbluff, telling Johnson about his experience. “He said ‘you know, that’s a neat place.’ I’d never been there,” Johnson said. “He said ‘it’s a pretty place, why don’t we go out there and do our work?’ ”

Both doctors were eventually recruited to work in Gering. They moved into a building which was erected in 1972 near the corner of M and Sage streets. Fuhrman partnered with Dr. Stuart Wiley, who Johnson likened to TV’s Dr. House. Wiley practiced on one side of the building, Johnson and Imes occupied the other half.

“I didn’t have any medical breakthroughs,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have any articles in “The New England Journal of Medicine.”

Of the patients he saw daily, most were for traditional illnesses, “diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and emotional problems. That’s all the doctors do,” Johnson said, recasting his memories. “I’ve got at least one five-generation family that I see every once in a while. A lot of babies I delivered had babies. That’s kind of neat to have those long-term relationships.”

But he added, it’s the “bad memories that stay with you longer than good ones. People that died, and friends that disappeared. That hasn’t been easy. We have been through so many changes in medicine. In our four-man group, we did everything, including trying to collect money, and pay bills – struggling with that. Joining with other family doctors and internal medicine doctors, trying to be a bigger group. Trying to be more efficient. Then the hospital bought our combined practice. And, that wasn’t a bad thing for me. I went along with that.”

Johnson officially signed away ownership to Regional West in 2008. “In a way that was good, because there isn’t a young man or woman coming out of med school that was going to come here and buy my practice, anymore.”

He lamented that family medicine doctors, ignoring the mistake in referring to them as general practice doctors, are a dying breed and Regional West was finding a tough time recruiting new doctors to fill the opening left behind by Johnson.

In lighter moments, medical school was where he was nicknamed Artie. Though spelled differently, his peers made reference to the comedian and actor Arte Johnson on Rowen & Martin’s Laugh-In, which aired for six years during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“Everybody we know calls me Artie,” said Johnson, referring to yet another nickname, this one originating from Philadelphia Sixers forward Julius Erving. “Dr. J is what my nurse calls me,” Johnson said. “I do think the basketball player stole my name.”

His sense of humor is deeply embedded in his approach to medicine, though he jokingly refers to his bedside manner as being “pretty crappy.”

Johnson pushed away from his desk and pulled a book off his shelf, thumbing through a somewhat worn paperback of a joke book. “My policy is if there’s humor, to be involved, it’s much easier to start out seeing a smiling face than an angry patient,” he said. “As long as I have been here, I have had a variety of “Far Side” books. I think my father gave me this one when I moved out here.”

He held up a copy of “I Feel Much Better Now That I’ve Given Up Hope” by Ashleigh Brilliant. “When people are in the exam room waiting for me, they look at this,” Johnson said. “You can see how much it has worn; I’ve thrown a bunch out over the years. If I had a trademark, and my patients would tell you, it would be these stupid comic books instead of keeping medical magazines that tell them how many diseases they have.”

Although he limits social interaction, except for his patients, he did manage time for becoming a member of the vestry at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Scottsbluff. He also coached little league baseball and softball as his two sons and daughter grew up.

“I’m not a social joiner person. I don’t belong to clubs. I socialize with 20 friends every day. And, every day’s a little different. Some I see more often than others,” he said, unable to resist the urge to joke about his coaching days. “Once, I did get an offer to be the third base coach with Kansas City.”

According to close friends and his wife Jan, coaching was something he enjoyed very much, just like any other dad who was out there. At night he was picking up bats and balls.

Like coaching chose him, so did becoming a doctor. “I was going to be a math teacher when I went to college,” he said. “Second year of College Algebra, I changed my mind. I decided I’d do something easy,” he said, giggling. “I love science and biology.”

Another factor came into play, the Vietnam War. While draft dodgers were burning notices for duty, Johnson carefully weighed his options. “In 1969, Ho Chi Minh was inviting lots of young men to his country,” he said. “My choice was to be drafted and go to Vietnam, or spend four more years of college. Vietnam. College. I liked college.”

Though military service never entered the picture, Johnson was prepared to go. “There was still the war, and the draft,” he said. “Suddenly, they ended the war in Vietnam, and they ended the draft.”

At this critical juncture, he looked at himself as just a farm kid from a farm family in Mead, Neb., who admired his family doctor in nearby Wahoo. Marking time, the doctor he looked up to has since passed away, and Mead remains just as small with 569 souls at the last census count. “Every time somebody was born, somebody left town,” said Johnson about his tight knit family and fellow residents. “We were farm kids. The whole town was farm kids.”

Johnson was one of those who left town.

At first he was vague about what he would do in retirement. Johnson suggested he might putter around, do nothing, and read police novels at the Gering Public Library. Then, as though a lightbulb above his head had shined, he said, “In retirement, I think my wife would want me to spend most of my time with her, doing the things that she likes to do, like watching football.”




Courtesy photo - Dr. Alan Johnson poses for his medical school graduation.
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