Ryan Johnson is in his fourth year of medical school and has developed an educational platform that could revolutionize medical institutions in the future. Though he is on what many call the road to success, a rare illness and stretches of homelessness made Ryan’s path less than ideal.
A native of Charlotte, N.C., Johnson, 33, began his collegiate studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. While at Morehouse, Johnson began slipping into what he described as “mini-comas,” which lasted up to 48 hours. He also experienced excessive thirst and endured finger and toe twitches, but had no clear idea what was wrong with him. “I thought it was multiple sclerosis,” said Johnson.
After two years at Morehouse, Johnson finished up his last two years of undergraduate studies at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Upon earning his bachelor’s degree Johnson remained local, teaching and tutoring math at Northeast Middle School in Charlotte. From there, he applied and was accepted to pre-medical school at Loma Linda University in California.
With tough classes and a rigorous workload, Johnson found himself committing endless amounts of time to studying. It was then that the mini-comas became more frequent and intense.
“I remember my best having to physically break into my room and wake me up from what I’d call the ‘Great Depression’ of my disease,” said Johnson. “I found out what was wrong with me the hard way.”
Johnson was – without proper testing – initially diagnosed with type-2 diabetes – a diagnosis that he felt was unconventional for someone of his build. Most type-2 diabetics are overweight, have to consider the food they eat, and most importantly, scale back on the amount of insulin they receive.
It turns out that Johnson was actually a type-1 diabetic – which meant his body lacked the proper amount of insulin – and his incorrect diagnosis resulted in him not receiving any insulin.
“My pancreases were basically fried,” said Johnson.
His illness caused him to drop out of school and live on the streets.
Johnson wasn’t one to lie down, though. Because of the bravado and determination instilled in him by his father, Johnson set back out to California to prove that he could handle the strenuous course loads of pre-medical school, even with his condition.
In the end, though, Johnson’s illness proved to be too much and caused him to drop out of school again. This time, however, Johnson refused to return to Charlotte, so he chose to live in various homeless shelters and even his car at times.
“I just couldn’t go home again. I was working toward something; I was working toward medical school. I just didn’t want to come home without that degree,” he said.
After a few months of homelessness, Johnson began tutoring at-risk students in mathematics. He was known for his vibrant, unorthodox teaching methods that included standing on desks and waving his arms. His flamboyance caught the eye of the county’s superintendent, who one day called Johnson into his office and offered him a teaching job.
After a stint of teaching, he was encouraged to apply for medical school, since his MCAT score was competitive. He was then accepted into Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, where he continues his studies today.
“After my first two years of medical school, I had been through so much, to be at where I was … I just needed therapy. It all started to get to me,” said Johnson.
Johnson admits he wouldn’t be where he is today without the help of a select few. He names his father, Robert Johnson Sr.; Dr. Pamela Williams, dean of student affairs at Meharry; Dr. George Breaux, head of professional development at Meharry and Dr. Linda Murakata, a distant cousin whom Johnson just recently met for the first time.
“At times I wanted to quit, simply give up,” said Johnson. “But those people wouldn’t allow me to quit, I was told, ‘You will not quit.’”
Johnson has used his struggles as motivation to help others. The platform that he’s developed, VIMAP, is a mobile, 3-D based educational interface currently in developmental stages. He’s negotiated with Meharry and Loma Linda to begin beta testing of the invention. It’s even allowed him to meet one of his idols, Dr. Ben Carson of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
“We all face adversity, but it’s what we do after we’ve experienced it that counts” said Murakata in praise of her relative. “Ryan has a medical handicap, but he’s used it to help others. He’s using his gift.”