Dudley Johnson does it his way
Sitting on a desk in the south side Milwaukee office of Dr. W. Dudley Johnson is a dollar-bill-sized clear piece of plastic encapsulating what looks like a small branch of a plant.
But the five-inch-long, yellow substance isn’t from Johnson’s vast gardens at his Germantown farm.
It’s plaque from a patient’s coronary artery, painstakingly removed in a lengthy procedure that Johnson, 68, and his colleagues at the W. Dudley Johnson Heart Care Center perform.
In a technique called endarterectomy, Johnson cuts a diseased artery lengthwise and very carefully removes the buildup, and then uses a leg vein to stitch over the now-clear artery.
The momento on Johnson’s desk is a stark reminder to those who would eat to much of food high in saturated fats.
But to Johnson, it’s a reminder of what he’s been able to do with high-risk patients who might otherwise face death from their cardiovascular disease.
Early in 1968, Johnson made medical history by pioneering the coronary bypass technique of removing a vein from a patient’s leg and revascularizing the heart by implanting the vein into the blocked right artery.
Later that year he performed the world’s first double bypass, and was part of the surgical team that performed a heart transplant on West Allis resident Betty Anick, who, until her death in 1977, was the world’s longest surviving heart transplant patient.
His list of “firsts” in the field of heart disease treatment has since expanded, making him internationally renowned – Johnson and his associates have had patients from almost every state and from 35 foreign countries.
Now, he’s adding two more innovative procedures to his arsenal against cardiovascular disease, lending support to those who call him “Dr. Hope” – the specialist they turn to when all other medical options have run out.
One of the new procedures will treat persons with chronic atrial fibrillation which is the second leading cause of cardiac death and the single leading reason for hospitalization.
“About 15% of our nation’s health bills are because of strokes,” Johnson says. “Atrial fibrillation is the second-leading cardiac cause of death, and causes 25% of the strokes.”
Stroke patients often spend more days in the hospital than the population without atrial fibrillation, he adds. And people with atrial fibrillation have a stroke rate five times higher than the general population.
When the atrium quivers, a lack of contractions can cause blood to stagnate and clot. Drugs and blood thinners can be used as treatment in some cases.
But Johnson’s new approach will be very different. He’ll staple off the appendage, preventing the clot from traveling and thus from becoming lethal. And Johnson expects to see dramatic results on patients who get the patented treatment.
Getting to the point where he can do the procedure hasn’t been an easy road to travel. “The politics of getting a new operation off the ground are phenomonal,” he observes.
Johnson tracks patients over the long haul in a rather detailed way to prove the value of the procedures he undertakes, even if those procedures may be more time-consuming and more costly than those proscribed by others in the field, or more costly than managed-care organizations would like to pay for.
Johnson is a maverick. He is affiliated with no managed-care plan.
“I’m far more concerned about how many of my patients are going to be around in 15 years than about how long they’re going to be in surgery or whether they’ll be in the hospital an extra day or two,” says Johnson, a Madison native who now lives on a farm in Germantown.
Johnson’s character and aggressive approach to his work have won him some detractors, and he’s not shy in his criticism of other health-care practices in Milwaukee, nor of managed care, which, he says “has no concern for quality.”
He earlier passed up an opportunity to move his practice to California – a decision he now regrets.
No matter what others say about him, Johnson retorts that he has the evidence to prove that what he does works and that because of that work, his patients – people who suffer from chronic, complicated and diffuse heart disease and who are in high-risk categories – live better and longer lives.
That’s why he’s in business.
He and his colleagues at the W. Dudley Johnson Heart Care Center have been tracking patients since 1968. (The center is kitty-corner from St. Francis Hospital on South 16th Street in Milwaukee). Based on a national scoring form, the center’s patients are exceeding their long-term outcomes of pain-relief, re-operation rate and survival rate.
The second new procedure which Johnson is perfecting will aim to revitalize tissue through use of growth stimulants. The treatment will be an expansion on the Vineberg mammary artery graft procedure he’s long used to revive arteries.
With the mammary artery implanted into a long tunnel in the heart muscle, genetic material will be injected to, hopefully, stimulate growth of new blood-carrying vessels.
For diversion, Johnson turns to his farm where he’s organically growing apples, asparagus and other plants. He takes pride in pointing out that a Chicago market which buys his asparagus “can’t get enough of it.”
June 1998 Small Business Times, Milwaukee
Dudley Johnson does it his way