On a mission

Dr. Rick Johansen is the medical director at the Berrien County Health Department.

ST. JOSEPH — It was a religious conversion that set Frederick "Rick" Johansen on his path as a healer and a Christian. But it wasn't his own.

Johansen, a pediatrician with Southwestern Medical Clinic since 1977 and medical director of the Berrien County Health Department, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and later moved to New Jersey. His father was a chemical engineer who was injured in an industrial accident, receiving burns over 90 percent of his body.

The shock caused Johansen's mother to go into early labor, delivering her son in the same hospital where her husband lingered. He weighed 4 pounds at birth.

Johansen's father had not been particularly religious, but he was impressed by a friend who appeared to live an exemplary Christian life. While in the hospital, a nurse read to him from the Bible.

"That's what Randy lived," he said before his death. "I want to be a Christian."

The experience had a profound effect on Johansen's mother, as well. When her son, around age 8, asked her what he should do with his life, she answered "If you could be a doctor, that would be good. If you could do mission work, that would be even better."

Since coming to Berrien County, Johansen has been able to do both, participating in numerous mission trips to Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Liberia, Haiti, Honduras, Bolivia and Romania, while also having an impact on the health and well-being of children here.

It was the combination of medicine and mission work that brought him to Michigan. He was reluctant to leave the East Coast for the wilds of the Midwest, but he kept seeing ads for a clinic in Michigan that promised to fulfill his two ambitions.

"I finally thought, this is where I should go," Johansen said.

He joined Southwestern Michigan Clinic as its first pediatrician. In 1979, he took part in his first mission trip, spending three months in Liberia dealing with an Ebola virus outbreak.

Johansen said he committed to Southwestern because it allowed him to have a diverse group of patients, both financially and ethnically.

"They embraced everyone with open arms," he said. "We had the most Medicaid patients of any clinic in the state."

Reducing lead exposure among children was one task Johansen and his colleagues took on, which he has continued through the health department. Closing the gap of infant mortality between black and white children, which at one point was five to one, was another goal.

Working with the county health department, Johansen advocated for introducing the Nurse Family Partnership program, against the wishes of the state health department.

The program has been successful in improving the health of children and mothers, and is now operating in 10 Michigan counties, Johansen said.

Johansen – known to many as Dr. J – served as deputy medical director for the county health department, and was appointed medical director in 1999, which has been a full-time position since 2005. He also is the county's medical examiner, looking into unexpected or suspicious deaths.

Another area where Johansen and other Berrien County officials took the lead was in becoming the first county in Michigan to enact an indoor smoking ban.

"I've been called some very nasty names" over that, Johansen said. He believes the conservative community eventually accepted the change because it was promoted not as a ban, but as a way to improve health for everyone.

Johansen traveled to Haiti in 2010 after the devastating earthquakes, and has made five trips to Tenwek Hospital in Kenya, where he has treated everything from premature births to hippo bites. He said his greatest satisfaction has been teaching medical students and seeing them take charge of the facility.

Johansen is now seeing his third generation of patients at Southwestern. Only one of his five children, who accompanied him on a mission trip, went into the medical field, and has a dental practice in St. Joseph.

A model train track runs through Johansen's office at the health department, and he has model trains at home. His father bought him his first Lionel train for his first birthday, which he still has. His office also is lined with photos from his many trips abroad, and pictures of his native New York.

Johansen gives the credit for his career and accomplishments to his wife of 49 years, Barbara. They were born in the same hospital, but did not meet until they were in college. She worked to put him through medical school with no debt, and even his grades were better after they got together.

She took on much of the work of raising their five children while he devoted time to his practice and mission work, he added.

"Anything I have accomplished would have been absolutely impossible without her," Johansen said. "And she's put up with me for 49-plus years, which is pretty cool."

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak