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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A silent calling: Raised by deaf parents, medical student seeks to serve the underserved

Second-year medical student Luke Johnson poses for a photo on Nov. 28 at the UW School of Medicine at the Schoenberg Center on Gonzaga’s campus in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane medical student Luke Johnson spent his childhood in what he calls a paradoxically silent house.

Raised by two deaf parents, Johnson and a younger brother can hear, but they grew up using only American Sign Language at home. His first words were in ASL, and it’s the language he knows best, becoming his parents’ translator to a hearing world as early as age 6.

But Johnson, now 24, also didn’t hear English consistently until preschool, and lacking that early exposure, he later struggled academically and couldn’t pronounce certain words.

“My parents are deaf, and not just deaf in they can’t hear, but they are culturally deaf,” said Johnson, who started at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Spokane in 2017. “They don’t lip read. They don’t put cochlear implants or hearing aids on.

“My parents don’t know anything about my English-speaking development, and I lagged behind in that for a long time. I was able to stay on point with reading and stuff like that, but just speaking fluently and having good grammar were difficult. Pronouncing things correctly was the hardest part.”

His Vancouver, Washington, family also struggled financially as his father worked as a carpenter. They relied on Medicaid and other government assistance. The 2008 recession hit them hard. His dad was unemployed for about a year and then became disabled.

Throughout those years, Johnson continued to translate for his parents, even to the point around age 10 of helping them buy a car, a stressful encounter using complex terms such as in-house financing.

“Before I can even remember starting it, I always interpreted for my parents. I asked my parents (later), why did I do that? Did you ask me to? And they said I did it because I just loved helping them; it made me happy to see my parents succeed.”

Johnson believes that background helped fuel his dreams of becoming a doctor serving people who have struggles or limited access to health care. He signed up for UW’s Targeted Rural Underserved Track program, which assigned him to regular clinical training at the Newport Community Hospital and adjacent family clinic.

He also is one of 22 UW medical students in Spokane to receive scholarship support from the Huckabay Family Endowed Fund for Education that began in 1995, 40 years after Dr. Durward Huckabay’s death.

The Huckabay family of Coeur d’Alene has contributed $15 million to benefit UW medical students in Spokane and a five-state system. The scholarship mission is to encourage future family physicians to work in small towns and remote communities, in a tribute to Huckabay, who became a rural physician after undergoing financial hardships himself and raising four younger siblings.

Additionally, Johnson serves in a student-run club called Underrepresented in Medicine, with the goal of helping other students like himself get into med school.

Johnson first thought about becoming a physician in high school, but he said it was a foreign concept to his parents who never went to college. They couldn’t pay for his education. After grants and scholarships provided a path for Johnson to study biology at UW in Seattle, he nearly quit.

“I struggled a lot actually,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have the best grades. I was worried maybe I wasn’t smart enough for medicine, but then I later came to discover that I just didn’t know how to study. I kind of scraped by, but I didn’t know how to apply myself.”

Encouragement from teachers helped Johnson break through that, as did learning better study skills to prepare for the Medical College Admission Test. He ultimately scored high on that MCAT — and with recommendations — was accepted to five medical schools.

“I had professors who really believed in me, which is really awesome because I almost gave up as an undergrad.”

During 2019, he’ll do some additional full-time rotations of clinical training work in Newport, under doctor’s supervision. That follows up mainly academic work the past three semesters in Spokane, where his class of 60 students is based at Gonzaga University.

While completing that classroom work since fall 2017, he had traveled about once a week to Newport’s hospital and clinic for doing doctor-supervised care of patients.

“Compared to some classmates, I did a lot more hands-on,” he said. “It’s just me and the doctor. I helped deliver four babies, which is incredible. I got to help in surgeries. I’ve gotten to do a lot of stuff my classmates haven’t because they’re in the city.”

Dr. Geoff Jones, a Newport family practice physician, also is an assistant clinical dean for UW School of Medicine. He has worked directly with Johnson supervising his training in Newport.

“Luke really cares about helping people, especially those less fortunate,” Jones said. “He’s eager to learn everything he can, so he’s a great guy to train.”

He said TRUST students such as Johnson spend time in their rural “continuity” communities even before starting medical studies to get to know the town, patients and area physicians. It’s part of a focus to attract more physicians to rural settings, which are always in need of doctors, Jones said.

Despite Johnson’s concerns about early undergraduate grades, Jones said the UW medical school admission process takes a holistic look at potential students.

“We’re looking for people who will be good doctors,” he said. “Yes, you have to be able to pass your boards, but there is a lot more to it. You’ve got to be able to communicate with people, and you’ve got to care.”

Working in Newport, Johnson said he gained a familiarity with patients, some who ask for him now.

“Because I got to go to the clinic once a week, or once every other week for a year, one thing I loved was the continuity,” he said. “Patients were in there recognizing me.”

Newport has high rates of poverty, suicides, heroin use and certain health conditions such as diabetes and obesity, he said.

His overall goal is to provide care after his residency to vulnerable populations and to people in rural settings such as Newport with limited services, “whether they’re disabled, racially discriminated against, from a different culture or they grew up poor.”

“Medicine is one of the ways you can serve the underserved,” he said.

“I want to do something like primary care, ER or general surgery, where not only what I do is needed everywhere, but also I can go internationally and do mission work; not mission because I’m religious, just volunteerism in countries where they don’t have services.”

He also expects sometimes to provide health care to deaf patients, perhaps some who only use ASL.

“I’m going to use sign language because it’s my language. In clinics, there are deaf people even in small towns, so that will be handy.

“My parents are proud of me, because it was really hard growing up, and being a doctor is a great honor.”