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Stallworth’s Johns draws on broad background

Mar. 8, 2018, 9:05 AM

Jeff Johns, MD, enjoys the balance of science and patient interaction offered by his work in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. (photo by Susan Urmy)

As a freshman at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Jeff Johns, MD, spotted someone practicing for cheerleader tryouts. Although he had never once tumbled in gymnastics or participated in cheerleading before, Johns asked her to teach him some basics.

“Over the course of about a week and half, I learned how to do a back handspring,” laughed Johns, medical director of Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital (VSRH). “I landed on my head a fair number of times, but fortunately I had no concussions or major injuries.”

Johns tried out for the team, too. He didn’t get chosen initially, but when a position opened up on the junior varsity squad during the winter break, he was asked to join the team. He cheered for a year and a half before ultimately deciding to focus on preparing for medical school rather than advancing on to the varsity squad.

“I never thought I could learn to do a standing back tuck, but I did,” Johns said. “And also all those lifts and tosses with my cheerleading partner. I was heavier and stronger back then because I was in the gym all the time. Now I like to run, so my appearance has changed, and people are sometimes surprised to learn that I used to be able to lift another person.”

While many of his colleagues might not have known Johns was a college cheerleader, they won’t be surprised by the tenacity with which he set a goal, put in the work and made the team. That’s just how Johns operates.

While many of his Vanderbilt University Medical Center colleagues might not have known Johns was a college cheerleader, they won’t be surprised by the tenacity with which he set a goal, put in the work and made the team. That’s just how Johns operates.

“The role of VSRH medical director is a critical one, as the medical operations of Stallworth are quite diverse,” said Jeffrey Palmucci, chief executive officer of VSRH. “Dr. Johns fills the role exceptionally well, and is a great partner with me as we support the missions and visions of both Vanderbilt University Medical Center and HealthSouth Corporation.”

Since being recruited to join the Vanderbilt faculty in 2013, Johns has worked with his team to grow the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) program, in terms of the number of clinical providers, in the educational offerings for medical students and residents, and in the services and programs provided for patients.

Johns also stepped up to serve as interim chair of the Department of PM&R for more than a year following the 2017 departure of former chair Walter Frontera, MD, PhD. David J. “D.J.” Kennedy, MD, was named the department’s permanent chair in January.

Significantly, during Johns’ tenure and with the leadership of Stacy Stark, DO, residency program director and assistant professor of PM&R, an Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME)-accredited PM&R residency program was approved in 2014, with the initial class recruited in 2015.

One challenge Johns and the PM&R group met successfully was the incorporation of the new residents into the well-established clinical care program at Vanderbilt-Stallworth. The hospital, which opened in 1993, is an 80-bed inpatient rehabilitation facility and is a joint venture between VUMC and HealthSouth Corp., one of the nation’s leading rehabilitation providers.

“That’s been a very fun piece of this job and we’ve all benefited from it,” Johns said. “The residents have benefited from working with a strong, experienced staff and the staff appreciate that extra layer of educational presence and excitement that comes from having the residents here.”

The VSRH staff includes 21 physical therapists, 28 occupational therapists, 15 speech therapists, 50 registered nurses and five licensed practical nurses who assist patients recovering from conditions such as stroke and other neurological disorders, brain injury, spinal cord injury, amputation, complex orthopaedic conditions, and cardiac and pulmonary conditions.

In 2017, Stallworth had 1,400 patient discharges.

The hospital has achieved Joint Commission disease-specific care certification for stroke and brain injury rehabilitation programs, and is the first and only rehabilitation hospital in Tennessee to achieve the spinal cord injury rehabilitation certification, Johns said.

To earn these certifications, the rehabilitation programs underwent extensive on-site evaluations by Joint Commission reviewers, and the hospital demonstrated compliance with national standards and use of evidence-based clinical practice guidelines to manage and optimize care for patients.

“Achieving these disease-specific certifications supports our ongoing efforts to provide a high quality, full continuum of care for these patients who need specialized rehabilitation to achieve their best recoveries,” Johns said.

“For example, we brought in a neuropsychologist from the Psychiatry Department who now works with us a day and a half a week to help manage and evaluate some of the inpatient traumatic brain injury (TBI) individuals. We’ve also done additional education for our staff about the management of individuals with TBI, especially some of the difficult, behavioral challenges.”

Johns came to VUMC from Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was associate medical director and medical director of the Spinal Cord Injury Program. A graduate of Duke University School of Medicine, he completed a PM&R residency and was chief resident at Medical College of Virginia Hospitals and Physicians of Virginia Commonwealth University Health System.

“From about middle school on, I knew I wanted to be a physician,” Johns said. “It came about from a natural confluence of interests and proficiencies. I was very proficient in science, but I also have a great love for people.”

“From about middle school on, I knew I wanted to be a physician,” Johns said. “It came about from a natural confluence of interests and proficiencies. I was very proficient in science, but I also have a great love for people.”

When Johns began his medical school education at Duke, he initially thought he would enjoy providing care to children, but an early pediatric rotation changed his mind.

He then considered anesthesiology because he liked the specialty’s blend of science, physiology and pharmacology. He began working in a cardiovascular anesthesiology lab, doing studies on myocardial contractility and the effects of anesthetic agents. But he felt something was missing — closer interaction with people.

A chance conversation with some of his neighbors who were studying to become physical therapists opened his eyes to this field, which offered a good balance of hard science and interpersonal connections.

“The focus of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation is functional improvement and quality of life,” he said. “It answers the question, ‘After the illness, after the injury, then what?’ Working with the team of professionals here at VUMC and at Stallworth, without whom I couldn’t achieve such positive outcomes with patients, adds to the value, satisfaction and stimulation that I get from my job on a daily basis.”

A North Carolina native, Johns has been married for 22 years to Gigi, with whom he’s raising three teenage daughters — twins Sydney and Avery, and Virginia.

Johns is an avid runner, and an annual Thanksgiving tradition is participating in the 5-mile Boulevard Bolt along Belle Meade Boulevard with family members brave enough to face Nashville’s mercurial November weather.

Johns also admits to being a devoted “dance dad,” supporting his daughters as they perform regularly in local dance competitions.

“I saw a dance dad wearing a shirt at a competition once that said, ‘I don’t dance, I finance.’ That’s very true!”

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