Twenty-four years ago, a young Evan Johnson donned cap and gown to gather with his classmates in Alumni Auditorium on the Columbia University Irving Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital campus. They had been studying and working hard to reach this special day, the day they would graduate from Columbia’s Program in Physical Therapy.
Like the other graduates on graduation day, Dr. Johnson knew his career as a physical therapist had begun, but where his career would take him remained unknown. Never did he imagine that he would be back in that same auditorium decades later. Yet on May 15, 2018, Evan Johnson, DPT, Director of Physical Therapy at The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York, delivered the commencement speech to graduates of the Columbia University Program in Physical Therapy.
“I urge you, the talented individuals of the graduating DPT class of 2018, to never lose sight of the great privilege you’ve been afforded to touch and help other human beings at a time of suffering and disability,” said Dr. Johnson.
“I urge you to question yourself and deepen your knowledge before you criticize your patient, even if your colleagues are not doing the same. I urge you not to judge your patients for their shortcomings, rather to find the place where you can reach them and impact their lives.
“Not only because it is the right thing to do, but because that’s where you will find the greatest professional satisfaction and personal growth. I’ve found that when confronted with seemingly irresolvable decisions, I’ve never regretted choosing the path that fosters growth.”
Columbia’s Program in Physical Therapy has long been highly sought after by prospective students, and it has a rich history. It started as a six- to eight-week course in 1942, making it one of the oldest programs in the country. World War II was going on, so physical therapists in the program were being trained to help wounded soldiers returning from war.
By 1960, the program was no longer a short course but a full fledged bachelor’s degree program. Then in 1980, Columbia began offering a master’s degree in physical therapy. Columbia was the second physical therapy program in the United States to do so. In the early 2000s, Columbia’s program evolved once more to keep up with the field. It began offering a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, which is the degree offered today.
During his speech, Dr. Johnson shared his unusual path to becoming a physical therapist.
At 17 he hitchhiked across the country. By 18 he was loading tractor trailers on the night shift at UPS and attending City College during the day. Then he took a brief leave from college to pursue a career dancing in New York City and touring Eastern Europe.
However, his dance career was cut short when a previous spine injury returned.
“Little did I know that those events would lead me to my graduation ceremony on this stage 24 years ago and to this moment now,” he said. “It is often the unanticipated results of our actions that weave the fabric of our lives.
“In no small part, through exposure from my own injuries and the trials of caring for my mother, who struggled with progressive multiple sclerosis, I found myself in this profession where I engage with people from all walks of life. Where patients bring their suffering, their fears and their resolve to my office and entrust me with their care.”
For more than a decade now, Dr. Johnson has been the Director of Physical Therapy and Administrative Director of the Spine Hospital. During this time, he has helped countless patients, educated physical therapy students, led research projects and presented at national meetings. He has even appeared in the media to offer tips for patients.
“It’s been quite a ride, replete with plenty of life’s potholes and more than a few near misses,” Dr. Johnson said. “The only thing that I can say for certain that I’ve done right during my personal and professional life was to bring passion and a drive for hard work to whatever endeavor I undertook.”
That same drive and passion brought these new physical therapy graduates together as well, and we here at the Spine Hospital wish them all a hearty congratulations!
Dr. Johnson was also recently featured in a profile video created by the Columbia University Program in Physical Therapy. You can view that video here.