Alumni Making a Difference

Rising from Hardship to Care for the Homeless

Lara Johnson, M.D., on being there ‘to listen, to honor, and to ease our patients’ pain’

In a home roiled by tension and drama, Lara Johnson, M.D., grew up surviving. Her mother shoplifted to support a heroin addiction. Her father was a functioning alcoholic. When the family’s home erupted in violence just before her parents divorced, Lara and her sister spent the night in an emergency shelter.

Yet the Dallas native emerged as valedictorian of her high school class, finished college, and graduated from UT Southwestern Medical School in 2002. After completing a family medicine residency at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, she cared for patients in a VA hospital in Baltimore before returning home.

Dr. Lara Johnson
Lara Johnson, M.D. Jonathan Zizzo

Over the next 13 years, Dr. Johnson worked at Parkland Memorial Hospital as a family medicine physician in the Homeless Outreach Medical Services program, often treating patients from a mobile clinic. In 2015, she helped launch Parkland’s first clinic to treat the medical needs of approximately 300 transgender patients.

“I’ve always been drawn to serving people who might have a very hard time finding a doctor who is comfortable with them,” Dr. Johnson said. “Seeing how other doctors treated my mother, I wanted to be the type of physician for whom it didn’t matter what your life and health circumstances were. I wanted you to feel welcome and respected, trusted, listened to, believed in, and certainly never judged.”

Dr. Johnson left Parkland late last year to begin planning her own clinic to serve Dallas’ transgender community. Reflecting on what she learned at one of the country’s largest public hospital systems, she looked back on her career and shared a mantra from a mentor at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

What motivated you to pursue a career in family medicine?

The potential for longitudinal relationships with patients was one of the keys to my choosing family medicine. I began treating patients experiencing homelessness during my fellowship at Georgetown University Medical Center. Engaging people as partners in their health care, especially in the face of competing priorities, has been particularly rewarding.

Why is family medicine important to a patient’s overall care?

Ideally, your physician should know you. When this is the case, changes can be recognized early and investigated. Additionally, engaging patients in preventive care and cancer screening can alter the trajectory of their lives. Family medicine physicians are ideally positioned to provide this type of care.

“We can always be there to listen, to honor, and to ease our patients' pain."

What accomplishment from your career holds the greatest significance?

Serving as the initial provider in Parkland’s first transgender clinic has been a career highlight. Working with motivated individuals and involving the community with a series of focus groups prior to the opening in August 2015, we began providing informed and empathic care to a segment of the population with well-documented disparities in access to health care.

Who at UT Southwestern had the greatest influence on you?

Elizabeth Paulk, M.D., ran the palliative care elective I took during my fourth year of medical school. The care and attention she gave to so many patients provided inspiration to banish the phrase, “There is nothing more we can do for you,” from any conversation with any patient, period. We can always be there to listen, to honor, and to ease our patients’ pain.

What is most important in your career?

Recognizing every person’s humanity and doing my best to eliminate bias from encounters with patients is important. I believe everyone deserves to be seen and heard, and healing rarely occurs without humility and mutual trust.

  • Dr. Paulk holds the Distinguished Professorship in Palliative Care, in Honor of Steven Leach, M.D.