Changing careers and going back to school later in life means abandoning what’s comfortable. Ken Johnson did just that when the medical difficulties of his youngest son inspired him to devote his life to caring for others.
His son received a heart transplant at just eight weeks old. The transplant took place at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, and was only the sixth transplant done by that care team at the time. The care and attention of the doctors at the hospital is what prompted Ken to change the course of his life.
Although not an Arizona native, Ken moved to Prescott Valley in 1992 and now calls Tempe home. He always had a passion for the mechanics of cars while growing up, and eventually opened his own business, Desert Auto Works, in Mesa, in 2005. “I like diagnosing things and fixing problems,” Ken said of his mechanical passion, a skill that will also serve him well as a physician.
Ken said he always felt he had a different path, but was unsure as to what it was. “I knew I wanted to be something more and I was trying to figure out what that was.”
Witnessing the health struggles of his youngest son and watching the doctors who were in charge of his care was the definitive moment for Ken. “We were in the ICU quite a bit and I realized how good I felt when the doctors would come in, and how much trust they had earned from me,” Ken said of the care team. “They had become so important in my own life.”
Ken said that some of the doctors on his son’s care team are current faculty at the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, which he didn’t know at the time. “The motivation for me to go into medicine was inspired by this high-level of excellence that I witnessed personally dealing with my children’s doctors,” he said. “I wanted to rise to that position and provide that for other people who may be dealing with such a situation.”
After this moment of clarity, Ken went back to get a degree in biology from Arizona State University – 12 years after starting his career. Ken’s unbridled passion for serving others is not something new, but going to medical school after having already launched a successful career and starting a family is a situation that presents new challenges for non-traditional students like Ken.
Ken sees this as a positive thing and believes his experience in life will help him face the decisions that come with caring for patients. “I think that as a society we’re told that once you get this far in life – I’d been married for eight years at the time and had three kids — it wouldn’t be possible,” he said. “Once I went back to school, a lot of the counselors told me that it couldn’t be done. But the one thing that older people have regardless of their career is a work ethic.”
Although older students who may have started a career face a daunting task, they also have the blessing of a definitive support network. “I say it’s definitely doable and I think it’s something they have to trust,” Ken said of non-traditional students entering medical school. “They have to take that first step and trust that it’s their path. My wife and friends have helped tremendously with the kids so that I can be here focusing on school.”
Ken said he believes he will really enjoy his doctoring course and has been impressed with med school thus far. “I think that it’s nice to see how the UA is on the cutting-edge of training doctors in how to deal with people on an emotional basis as well,” he added.
The UA College of Medicine – Phoenix was the No. 1 choice for Ken ever since he began his new path in life. “Right from the beginning, the UA always treated me like I was somebody really important to them, even before I had a bachelor’s degree,” he said. “They treated me like I was a serious candidate for this school.”
Ken is most interested in working with children in the future. “Kids have such a great, positive attitude,” he said. “I’m an advocate for children’s health and combating childhood diseases.”
When it comes to his inspiration for the medical field, Ken said his youngest son continually serves as his motivation. “We’re continuing to overcome challenges,” he said. “My son is an inspiration for me. Even at such an early age, he can positively go through all these procedures and sometimes painful treatments.”
“I hopefully will serve as an example that medical school is doable for older students,” Ken continued. “Don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t. I think older people are underestimating how much they already know.”
Read more about East Valley mechanic-turned-med-student Ken Johnson and other local students finding second careers as medical students at evtnow.com/uamedphxsecondcareer