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From Doane to Doctor: Bill Johnson ’86 heads Bryan ICU during global pandemic

As Dr. Bill Johnson ’86 watched the COVID-19 virus spread across China, through Italy, and into New York City, he felt lucky. Dr. Johnson is a board certified pulmonologist and Director of Intensive Care at Bryan Health in Lincoln. He’s also Vice Chief of Staff and sits on Bryan’s pandemic planning team. He felt lucky because Nebraska’s central geography meant he’d have a little extra time to prepare for something that terrified him, because the looming pandemic looked serious enough to remind him of Hollywood.

“Have you ever seen ‘Contagion?’” he asks. “You can just watch the trailer. The ‘Contagion’ trailer is actually very scary. When you watch that movie, that’s a very deadly disease. (COVID-19) is that for some people, but thankfully it’s not a pandemic that’s going to kill off the population. But as we watched and heard stories of how ill patients would get, I was very worried about what was going to happen to our country and to people as a whole.”

Southeast Nebraska is lucky to have someone as concerned, qualified and dedicated as Dr. Johnson to help its residents confront the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Johnson is board certified in pulmonology (respiratory medicine), internal medicine, critical care, and sleep medicine. He has a great deal of say in the functioning and administration of COVID-19 care in Lincoln’s largest health care system. Along with these roles, Dr. Johnson is also a partner in Nebraska Pulmonary Specialties, Lincoln’s sole provider of specialized respiratory care.

Dr. Johnson has been one of Bryan’s leading voices for public health information since the beginning of the pandemic, speaking at press conferences on April 30 and May 7, urging the public to wear masks in order to protect against asymptomatic spread of COVID-19.

Born and raised in Alma, Nebraska, Bill says he always wanted to go into medicine.

“I was pre-med from the get-go,” he jokes.

Dr. Johnson started at Doane in 1982 majoring in natural sciences. That was the program under which Doane’s pre-med students were housed at the time. Today it is known as Health Sciences (Doane has recently formed a Health Sciences Division to build out its programs for students interested in entering the health professions). While at Doane, Dr. Johnson ran cross country and competed in track and field for legendary Doane coach Fred Beile (at Doane 1955-2002), from whom he learned a lot.

“Fred (Beile) had a big impact on me as a person and how to handle life in general.”-Dr. Bill Johnson

Graduating from Doane in 1986, Bill has stayed close with several of his former teammates and classmates over the years. He says he stays in regular communication with all of them to this day.

“There’s eight of us that have a group text that we actively keep going, three women and four guys (and Bill). We all kind of grew together at Doane and to this day remain very close friends.”

Dr. Johnson says they all reconnected at Coach Beile’s funeral a few years back. His friends have many fond memories of attending Doane with Bill.

“Number one: he is the smartest person I know; and number two: he is one of the nicest,” says Brent Harsin ’86, one of Bill’s roommates at Doane and a friend since high school. “My senior year (at Doane) I had to take Quantitative Methods, a calculus class. I hadn’t taken a math class for three years, but not to worry, it was like I had the professor’s answer book living with me.

“I would come home, tell Bill what we were doing and how we were told to do it and he would tell me no, do it this way so it’s easier to understand. I still remember my final grade was a 96.”

Brent’s wife Regan ten Bensel Harsin ’86 ran cross country with Bill at the same time he was attending school with Brent.

“All of us formed an amazing bond during those four years,” she says. “Being Doane Tigers is something I know we’re all extremely proud of. One thing about Bill is that he is so intelligent, yet he was and still is always willing to help anyone with anything. We can always count on him to help out, and we’re blessed to call him our friend.”

After Doane, Bill began his medical journey in earnest. He spent four years at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and did his internal medicine residency there, spending a year as chief resident. After his four years of medical school and four years of residency, he spent three years in fellowship at the University of Iowa, where he got his certifications in pulmonology, critical care and sleep medicine.

He left Iowa City and came to Lincoln in 1997, where he’s been ever since. Around this time he helped found Nebraska Pulmonary Specialties, which exists as Lincoln’s only pulmonary specialist practice and currently consists of 13 partners including Dr. Johnson.

“We’re a very close-knit group of people and very happy with our practice,” Dr. Johnson says. “We’re very busy but very cohesive. We’ve been very happy in Lincoln.”

Along the way, Dr. Johnson married his wife, Judy, and had three kids, all adults now. His two daughters, Sydney and Rebecca, are both M.D.s, like their father. His son James is working on his Ph.D. in astrophysics.

As part of Bryan’s COVID Planning Group, even before the pandemic came to the Midwest, Dr. Johnson had the small luxury of some time to prepare for what he saw right away as a serious threat to public health. He and his team had their eyes on COVID-19’s spread weeks before it became a sudden and harsh reality to most of the public.

“We were lucky in Nebraska to have the ability to plan ahead of time and prepare for it,” Dr. Johnson says. “Initially we almost tripled our ICU bed capacity in preparation for the potential surge that was going to happen. There was a tremendous amount of planning from a multidisciplinary approach in terms of working with nursing staff, respiratory therapy, pharmacists, and hospital admin that had to be prepared well in advance and be organized as well as we could.”

Image of Bill JohnsonDr. Bill Johnson putting on PPE as he prepares to work at Bryan Hospital in Lincoln 

Dr. Johnson was early to adopt many of the medicines and treatment methods that are now showing great promise in the treatment of COVID-19 patients who have been hospitalized with severe symptoms. Dr. Johnson was early to prescribe the steroid Dexamethasone, because he knew how effective it was with helping patients with other serious respiratory diseases. Both he and the wider medical community have been having great success with keeping COVID-19 patients alive using this steroid. He says his team is also using Remdesivir now, and a treatment involving convalescent plasma, which are being mentioned more in national news as the pandemic persists.

Dr. Johnson says he’s become confident in the healthcare system’s ability to adequately treat COVID-19 patients while protecting providers from contracting and/or spreading the disease. He believes that the U.S. has the best healthcare technology in the world right now, especially where medical research – like the search for a vaccine – is concerned.

Computer technology has progressed to an astonishing degree. Research supercomputers can now sequence the complex structures of individual proteins in the immune system in order to help vaccine researchers narrow their search for effective treatments against COVID-19. American intensive care units are also the best-equipped in the world, according to Dr. Johnson, even though he acknowledges there is a gap in access to these elite facilities.

“There’s some possibility this could lead to changes in the healthcare system,” Dr. Johnson says. “There’s a lot of things wrong with healthcare in terms of the financial aspect. We have the best equipped system in the world, but the financial aspect needs to be fixed. You can’t have it the way it is and continue. I’m hoping this will lead to some element of repair for that.”

Different parts of the United States are reacting differently to different COVID-19 circumstances, and the national situation is in constant flux. Parts of the country are reopening, parts are reclosing in response to outbreaks. Many educational institutions, including Doane, have plans to reopen their campuses to students in-person for autumn terms.

For everyone, Doane and the public included, Dr. Johnson at leasts wants all of us to wear masks whenever we are in public or interacting with people who aren’t in our immediate physical orbit. When all parties in any gathering are wearing masks – properly, with the material covering both mouth and nose and firmly affixed – transmission rates for the virus drop dramatically. If even one person who is carrying the disease, even if they don’t have symptoms, is at the gathering and not properly wearing a mask, transmission rates increase dramatically. Dr. Johnson stresses the fact that wearing a mask is more necessary to keep yourself from potentially spreading the disease than from potentially receiving it, though masks do work both ways to differing degrees.

“Mask wearing isn’t meant to protect yourself, it’s to prevent spread,” he says. “That’s what wearing a mask in public is for. If we can prevent the spread over the next six months, we can save lives. It will be dramatic, the number of lives saved.”