Globe-trotter: Esther Johnston travels the world to provide health care to underserved populations

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By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Esther Johnston, M.D. (M.D.’11/M), has spent more than a decade traveling across continents providing health care for underserved populations.

She dreamt at an early age of becoming an investigative reporter, but as she entered high school, her passion shifted to medicine. She says she knew a career in health care would constantly challenge her and lead to a lifetime of learning.

“From the moment I realized it, I knew it was the right fit,” says Johnston, director of family medicine programs for the Boston-based nonprofit Seed Global Health and faculty member with the Wright Center Family Medicine Residency at HealthPoint in Auburn, Washington. “I wanted to do something where I would wake up feeling good every morning.”

Johnston attended the University of California, San Diego for her undergraduate degrees while working with the Flying Samaritans. The group works with a clinic in Ensenada, Mexico to improve access to health care in the community. It was there that she first witnessed the radical differences in health care outside of the U.S.

After graduating from UC San Diego with bachelor’s degrees in animal physiology and neuroscience and history, Johnston took a year off from school and traveled east to Charlottesville, Virginia. She split her time between working in the University of Virginia’s biomedical department and working as a coordinator for the Charlottesville Free Clinic before enrolling in Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

“I chose VCU because there weren’t a lot of schools in the country at the time with programs like the [International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program] focused on helping underserved populations,” she says. “Being a part of that laid the foundation for a lot of the work I’ve done since.”

In her first year, one of her lifelong mentors, Mark Ryan, M.D. (M.D.’00/M; H.S.’03/M), assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health and medical director of the I2CRP program, helped Johnston start a Spanish-language learning group, the Spanish Table, to encourage medical students to develop a working understanding of the language so they could better serve patients.

“When I first met her, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to add much to her training because of all the experience she already had, but she was willing to share that knowledge to teach others and strengthen their abilities as well,” Ryan says. “There are some students where one can feel grateful for having been part of their learning, and that you develop lasting relationships, and I am very glad that I can count [Esther] among my friends and colleagues.”

For Johnston, the feeling is mutual.

“[Dr. Ryan] inspired me to work both internationally and domestically with underserved populations,” Johnston says. “I feel like there are so many people around the country who are grateful to have met him and just have him as a teacher.”

That same year, Johnston met Michel Aboutanos, M.D., M.P.H. (H.S.’00/M), the Fletcher Emory Ammons Professors in Surgery in the School of Medicine, chair of the Division of Acute Care Surgical Services and medical director of the VCU Trauma Center, who played a large role in her decision to pursue a career in public health.

After completing her second year of medical school, Johnston left VCU to earn a master’s in public health at John Hopkins University. Her degree focused primarily on international health and for most of that year, she worked on a water quality and safety project within the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand and the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

With her M.P.H. in tow, Johnston returned to VCU, and by her fourth year, she was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under a CDC-Hubert Global Health Fellowship to develop a pandemic influenza surveillance program in Nairobi, Kenya.

“It turns out, within a few days of arriving, there was an outbreak of measles within the refugee population we worked with, and I had to switch focus to figure out what the barriers to immunization were for those refugees in the capital,” Johnston says. “I was extremely grateful for the strong support I had from VCU to work on this project while I was still finishing school. They did everything possible to make sure I had everything I needed to complete my degree and still finish my work with the CDC.”

Johnston earned her M.D. in 2011 and completed her residency at the University of Arizona’s Continuity Clinic less than 60 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, where she served a large refugee population in a hospital-based training environment. Afterward, she joined the Global Health Service Partnership, run by Seed Global Health and the Peace Corps, to teach pediatrics and child health at Hubert Kairuki Memorial University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

“It was challenging at times, but it was an incredibly fulfilling experience,” she says. “When I finished the trip, I was given the opportunity to continue my involvement with Seed Global Health, and I love it.”

With her time split between Seed Global Health and the Wright Center at HealthPoint, Johnston still keeps VCU close to her heart as the place where she found her calling with the help of her two mentors, Ryan and Aboutanos.

“It was exhilarating to be surrounded by people who were passionate about the same things I was,” Johnston says. “I’ll never forget my time at VCU.”

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