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Near-death Experience Leads to Teaching Idea

It was only after his life had been saved by his colleagues at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center that James E. Johnson figured out what he really wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Johnson, PhD, a professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy in the School of Medicine, found himself with intense back pain in 2006 while at the home of his in-laws. Johnson, his wife, Mary, and his two sons had traveled there to mark his in-laws’ 60th wedding anniversary. Instead, he stayed home on his back while his family went to the party.

But after hours in agony, he woke his sons at 4 a.m. and they carried him, supine, into the car to drive back to Wake Forest Baptist. There, after a week of tests, a bacterial infection was found in scar tissue from an old basketball injury in his spine. The abscess apparently derived from a dental root canal a decade earlier, which had progressed into a dental abscess that had been dealt with in an extraction the month before. During the extraction, some bacteria managed to hide and flourish in the scar tissue.

It took Johnson a year to learn to walk again, a process he credits to the many physicians, nurses, students and church friends who helped throughout his recovery.

When he was getting back to being functional at work, his friend and colleague, Greg Hundley, MD, asked to monitor his heart for problems that might have occurred during his long months of illness and recovery. It wasn’t long after that Johnson learned he had an aneurism which, because of the intense monitoring initiated by Hundley, was able to be treated with an aortic valve/aortic root replacement before it ever became life-threatening.

“The doctors here saved my life—twice,’’ Johnson says.

Recovering from that second life-threatening problem gave Johnson the push he needed to propose a new method of teaching physicians, nurses, physician assistants—anyone who sees patients.

His idea was to merge individual clinical instruction programs into one cohesive unit that could teach within the medical center, as most of the existing programs did, but also to contract the services of that unit to people and programs from outside.

The concept found traction with Wake Forest Baptist leaders and was launched in 2010 as the Center for Applied Learning (CAL), now one of the largest academic programs of its kind in the nation. (The image below shows a CAL class.)

Cal Operating Room Pic for Johnson blog

CAL in its short life has already been spun out as its own business initiatives and is one of two units under the auspices of Wake Forest Innovations’ Scientific Business Services. CAL has grown not just with people from Wake Forest Baptist, but from around the nation.

That’s because CAL already features programs such as medical ultrasound, the original clinical instruction program begun in 1975 and led by Frederick Kremkau, PhD, who Johnson calls “a rock star’’ in the world of ultrasound.

Ultimately, Johnson says he intends for all of the various clinical instructional programs to be housed in one building in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

“My goal is for this to be the preeminent place in the country for people to learn for the next 100 years.’’