UK Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Chair Dr. Darren Johnson has earned many accolades in his field throughout his career, but 2012-13 was a particularly special year for Johnson and his team.
He was voted the 2012-13 SEC Team Physician of Year, was recently ranked as one of the Top 19 U.S. Sports Medicine Specialists by Orthopedics This Week, and regularly lands on the list of “Best Doctors in America” by Castle Connelly. Under his leadership, UK HealthCare’s Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine department was ranked as a top 50 program by U.S. News and World report this past year, the first time for such a ranking.
But as a teenager, Johnson thought his interests would take him down a different path.
Born and raised in Torrance, Calif., Johnson grew up around animals — cats, dogs, even a snake — and first thought he would become a veterinarian. But before he started down that path, he says his parents insisted that he see the job firsthand. As a teen, he worked in a local vet clinic on the weekends.
“After seeing how you would have to sometimes euthanize animals… I couldn’t do it,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t for me.”
His career aspirations shifted when Johnson decided that instead of caring for animals, he could care for people instead. The choice to go into orthopaedics and sports medicine came naturally, he said.
“I was always involved in sports,” he said. “And using my hands is something that worked for me.”
In 1980, Johnson was selected for the 7-year biomedical science program for the University of California-Riverside (UCR) through the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The program allowed students to earn both their undergraduate and medical degrees in only seven years, one year shorter than the standard eight. Competition for the program was tough — out of 300+ applicants for the program, Johnson was one of only 24 who made the cut.
After completing his medical degree, Johnson completed an orthopaedics residency at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. In 1992, he came to Pittsburgh for a shoulder and sports medicine fellowship, working under the guidance of Dr. Freddie Fu, who is considered a pre-eminent leader in orthopaedic surgery and sports medicine across the globe. There, Johnson found a different environment in working for an academic medical institution.
“He was and still is a great personal mentor,” Johnson said of Fu. “And while I was there, a light bulb went off, and I thought, this is what I want to do. I had never before seen the academic machine of education, research and publication.”
Though Johnson had initially planned to move back to California after his time in Pittsburgh, the job market at the time was tough, and he chose to look for a position he felt was worthwhile and more in line with what he wanted, rather than trying to pick a location to settle down. In the fall of 1992, while still working on his fellowship, he found an opening in orthopaedics and sports medicine at the University of Kentucky, which at the time was only a division, not a full department. He flew down for an interview.
“I remember flying over Calumet Farm, looking out the window with my wife and son,” he said. “And thinking, ‘Yeah, this looks nice.'”
Johnson accepted the job, and he moved to Lexington with his wife, Nancy and oldest son, Brandon. He became director of sports medicine in 1995, and just five years later, took the reins as division chief. When UK Executive Vice President for Health Affairs Dr. Michael Karpf first came to UK Healthcare in 2003, Johnson met with him and expressed an interest in the orthopaedics and sports medicine division becoming its own independent department in the UK College of Medicine.
Subsequently, in 2005, the division earned its “Department” status and under Johnson’s direction, growth of the program took off. Johnson says the optimistic goal he gave Dr. Karpf at that time was to get UK Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine ranked in the top 50 programs nationally — a goal achieved after just eight years. Over the last 10 years, the division/department has tripled in size with respect to patient volume, case volume and faculty.
“When I first came, we had one orthopaedic/sports medicine fellow and trained three residents annually,” he said. “Now, each year we train three surgical fellows, two non-surgical fellows, and five residents.”
Johnson himself performs up to 250 ACL repair surgeries per year — more than any other orthopaedic surgeon in the state. He and his team of surgical and non-surgical sports medicine specialists also have the distinction of caring for the University of Kentucky’s SEC athletic teams, including the 8-time national champion mens’ basketball program. Caring for and successfully treating dedicated young athletes is the best part of the job, Johnson says.
“The best thing for me is we get to see these high school and college athletes with injuries — which is typically the lowest point in their life, it’s their ‘first tragedy’ — and then seeing them return to play with a smile on their face,” Johnson said. “Patients come in, we treat them, and then a year later they’re back to doing what they love to do. It’s a very rewarding specialty.”
Though his job and raising three children with Nancy has kept him busy, Johnson says he tries to find time to fit in some of his favorite pasttimes — golf, fly fishing, hunting. But one of his favorite ‘hobbies’ is educating others on the field of orthopaedics and sports medicine. He serves on many national committees, including the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, Southern Orthopedic Association Board of Directors, Arthroscopy Association of North America, and American Orthopaedic Association. Additionally, he has presented at multiple national and international meetings on varied complex topics related to knee and shoulder problems in the athletically active.
“I’m an academic orthopaedic surgeon who enjoys clinical work,” he said. “I travel a lot, go to meetings, speaking about surgery. That, to me, is fun, and I love it. Being an academic physician and having the opportunity to educate other physicians is a passion of mine.”
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