September 18, 2019

Katie Cox Johnson, co-founder of Shade Tree Clinic, mourned

Katie Cox Johnson, co-founder of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Shade Tree Clinic, died Sept. 11. She was 38.

by Kathy Whitney

Katie Cox Johnson, MD’07, co-founder of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine’s Shade Tree Clinic, died Sept. 11. She was 38.

Katie Cox Johnson, MD, at the opening of the Shade Tree Clinic.
Katie Cox Johnson, MD, founded the Shade Tree Clinic.

As a medical student, Johnson and her classmate Kristina Collins approached then-VUSM dean, Steven Gabbe, MD, with a proposal to establish a free medical student-run clinic to serve Nashville’s uninsured population. What started as a summer project in 2004 has endured and is considered a foundational clinical experience for medical students today.

“There are few, if any, graduates who had the kind of impact on Vanderbilt that Katie and Kristina had. I don’t think they could have imagined at the time what their summer project would lead to,” said Bonnie Miller, MD, Vice President for Educational Affairs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who worked closely with the students to get Shade Tree established.

Johnson grew up in Powell, Tennessee, and was valedictorian of her high school class. She was a graduate of Rhodes College and attended VUSM as a Canby Robinson Scholar. After earning her MD in 2007, she served her emergency medicine residency at VUMC.

During their first year of medical school, Johnson and Collins were seeking a way to get clinical experience, an opportunity that, at the time, did not present itself until the third year of medical school.

“She was such a stoic person — her cheerful and sweet demeanor unwavering through it all,” Collins said of Johnson, who had multiple sclerosis and cancer. “Katie spent most of the time she was given in her (far-too-short) life dedicating herself to helping others and to lifting other people up. She traded in a currency of positivity, hope and compassion.”

Today at Shade Tree Clinic, VUSM and Vanderbilt nursing students, under the supervision of physicians, provide urgent and chronic walk-in care for the area’s uninsured patients. The clinic also provides health education and patient referrals and acts as a bridge between the medically underserved community and other components of the region’s health care system. Since opening, Shade Tree has provided cost-free medical, social and pharmaceutical support to more than 4,000 patients. In 2017-2018, the clinic was the primary medical home to approximately 400 uninsured, underserved and homeless patients, and students provided nearly 2,500 medical visits.

“Katie and Kristina spent two years creating Shade Tree for Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Their efforts, along with ongoing support from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and VUSM, changed the culture of our medical school. Since 2005, almost every Vanderbilt medical student has contributed to the clinic in some way,” said Robert Miller, MD, one of the clinic’s medical co-directors. “Many of our graduates have left legacies after graduating from Vanderbilt. I do not know of two students who more fully achieved this status before graduating.”

Johnson was preceded in death by her father, Gordon Cox Jr., and is survived by her mother, Susan White, brother, Matthew Aaron Cox, and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins.