We Heart our Physical Therapists: Making of a Spine Physical Therapist: Dr. Evan Johnson

Feb. 14, 2019

Sure, Dr. Evan Johnson’s background in professional dance is useful for his work as a physical therapist, in all the ways you’d assume. But it’s also useful in a more surprising way. Dr. Johnson has developed a unique career out of his ability to balance many opposites: Academic and physical. Teaching and learning. Theoretical and practical. He uses uncommon strength, suppleness and poise to make that balance look effortless—hallmarks, of course, of a great dancer.

Even as a young adult, before he started dancing, Johnson felt that his most obvious way forward was creating his own path. And that path already balanced academic and physical components. Johnson graduated high school at 17 and traveled around the country doing physical labor: landscaping, digging ditches, installing pipes. “I found myself in that work, to some extent,” he says, “found some peace in a restless youth.” Johnson even lived in a tent on the coast of Maine while building a seawall. “I had some time to reflect on life and do physical labor and read The Odyssey and The Iliad and hang out with birds on these remote islands.”

Eventually, Johnson ended up back in New York, his hometown, taking classes at City College of New York. For work, he loaded trucks. It was physically demanding, and eventually he hurt his back. He wondered what he could do to keep moving, get stronger and help his back get better—and came up with an idea.

He called his mother, a professional dancer: “Hey, Mom. Do you know of any good dance classes?” And she recommended one in particular.

Johnson hadn’t danced before, but he liked the class immediately. In the second session, the regular teacher was out. “There was a substitute teacher from a pretty well-known dance company,” he says. “After the class, the substitute came up to me and asked, ‘Where do you dance?’ Of course it was only the second class I had taken, and I said, ‘Well, I don’t.’ She said, ‘Oh—you should.’ ”

And Johnson found that he agreed. The physicality and creativity of dance appealed to him. He found that he enjoyed martial arts for similar reasons, and for many years trained with rigor and joy in both disciplines. He gave up loading trucks and took restaurant jobs that fit around his training and performing schedules. “For a while I was a short-order cook in a German restaurant on 86th Street,” he says. “I once calculated that I cooked 100,000 Wiener schnitzels.”

He continued to progress in the dance world, where his performances took him around Europe, and he was also cast in more and more demanding roles at home in New York. In one particular Stravinsky piece, his role required lifting several other dancers overhead. He ended up with the same back problems he had experienced in his truck-loading student days: weakness, and shooting pain down his legs.

Over the course of eight months or so, he rehabbed himself, trying every potential remedy and gauging what worked for him: physical therapy, swimming, stretching, Pilates, yoga, acupressure, acupuncture. He learned what he could do to keep his body healthy, and finally he was ready to return to the stage. He was cast in a piece that required him to carry another dancer on his shoulder.

The back pain returned.

“I found myself actually lying down in the wings between entrances on stage. Lying down in the wings, and then coming out and smiling, assuming the role, dancing, and then lying down in the wings again. And I thought, ‘What am I doing? I’m 27 years old. After all this rehab, here I am on my back again.’” He needed a long-term plan, and dance wasn’t it.

His thoughts turned to school, at which he had always excelled, and he began taking classes again. At the same time, his mom—the professional dancer—was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As her abilities dwindled, she was left without the physical and expressive outlet of dance. Struggling to find another creative outlet, she turned to painting, but soon could not hold a paintbrush. So, Johnson recalls, she stuck the paintbrush in her watch band and painted that way.

During this period, Johnson reflected on his own physicality and his own experiences with pain and rehabilitation. He thought about his mother’s experiences as she remolded herself to fit her new circumstances. He thought a lot about “the importance—on physical and emotional levels—of bridging the person to the movement, the capability, the functions of their life. Whether it’s a professional athlete or a professional dancer, or just someone who needs to pick up their grandchild or tie their shoes.” He thought about how he might help people with that kind of bridging. Then he applied to Columbia’s extremely selective program for physical therapy.

Physical therapy school was a terrific balance of the physical and the academic. While in school, for example, he attended a meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. A speaker there mentioned something new—mobilizing the nervous system. Johnson was fascinated and talked to the speaker about it afterward. The idea was not yet well-known in the United States, but Johnson was determined to learn more about it and so “in the infancy of the Internet, 1992 or ’93” gathered information from other countries. As his master’s thesis, he designed his own research on the subject. The resulting paper was published as a cover article in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.

After graduation, Johnson went to practice physical therapy at Ball State University in Indiana. There he had the opportunity to broaden and deepen his skill set. He made orthotics, for example, and he gained experience in soft tissue work: “manual therapy, muscle energy manipulation, high velocity manipulation and so forth,” he explains. “I started to cultivate a background in that, and actually later would go on to get a certification in manual therapy as well as an orthopedic certification.”

But once again, New York called him home. His skill set was in demand as a practicing physical therapist. He worked in a few different private practices, running clinics and doing some teaching. Johnson continued to build his skill set. Soon he was also asked to give a guest lecture at his alma mater, Columbia. He picked up some adjunct teaching there, and then agreed to cover the teaching for an entire Columbia course.

Risa Granick, who retired from directing Columbia’s physical therapy program in 2014, remembers Johnson from that time: “When Evan taught with us, he just got wonderful reviews. Some people are born to teach, and I think Evan is one of them. He’s really caring and has a great personality… His students just loved him.”

And Johnson enjoyed teaching. He enjoyed it not only for its own sake, but also found to his surprise that “teaching made me a far better clinician.” A second pair of opposites, teaching and learning, was coming into balance.

By this time, he was also treating patients in one of Columbia’s physical therapy clinics. And at the same time that Johnson excelled as a teacher in the classroom, he also considered himself a student of his patients in the clinic.

“Being receptive to learning from the person who’s in front of you—that is the cool thing about what I do,” he says. “Because physical therapy is collaborative. You don’t do it for the patient. You do it with the patient.”

Johnson’s ability to work collaboratively with patients and doctors is something that’s noticed by, well, patients and doctors.

And sometimes those are the same person. Dr. Steven Isaacson, emeritus professor of Radiation Oncology in Neurological Surgery and co-founder of the Gamma Knife Center, first met Johnson when he sought physical therapy for help with a frozen shoulder. “I was doing so many pushups I wound up bleeding into my shoulder,” says Dr. Isaacson.

Johnson helped Dr. Isaacson—and earned his respect. Like many other doctors and physical therapists, Dr. Isaacson began recommending Johnson to his friends and family. Later, when the two worked together professionally, Dr. Isaacson had the opportunity to see Johnson work with many more patients.

“Evan intuitively realizes that everybody is unique and needs a different approach to therapy. He adapts therapy to their personality so that they can achieve the most desirable outcome. His attitude is positive and realistic.”

And Dr. Isaacson has his own idea about how Johnson got there. “Like all good clinicians—any kind of clinician: physical therapist, neurosurgeon, radiation oncologist—he looks at all of the things in his life, many of which are not medical. He harnesses the life experience that led him to physical therapy in the first place, and draws from that. And I think that has helped shape his treatment philosophy and his interpersonal relationships with patients and physicians.”

Dr. Paul McCormick, neurosurgeon and director of The Spine Hospital at the Neurological Institute of New York, also noticed Johnson’s unique ability to communicate, relate and personalize therapy. “We had certain patients in common—usually my patients,” Dr. McCormick says, “who I’d either operated on, or had recommended that the patient have physical therapy to try and avoid surgery. And what I noticed was that he was a good communicator. Not just with me, but with patients, in terms of what their conditions were, what their options were—with respect not just to exercises, but to issues that were particularly related to the patient’s lifestyle. He didn’t do a ‘shake-and-bake’ or one-size-fits-all approach.”

In return, Johnson noticed that Dr. McCormick had a true interest in multidisciplinary care for his patients. “Dr. McCormick was a world-renowned spine surgeon. But he recognized that bringing people in from different disciplines would allow for a broader perspective and ultimately for better patient care. At some point he invited me up to the Department of Neurosurgery to talk with some of his patients, and I got to know him better. I realized I was around someone who really had genius in his area. So we began working together in that way, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.”

When Columbia’s Neurological Institute was ready to open the Spine Hospital, Dr. McCormick knew they wanted to integrate physical therapy. He knew that Johnson could be a useful addition for patients being evaluated for spine surgery. “For patients who didn’t need surgery, they could benefit from this type of service. And for my patients who did need surgery, they would have someone dedicated and effectual to help educate and train them to achieve their maximum outcome.”

Dr. McCormick saw in Johnson the final balance of opposites that would suit the Spine Hospital perfectly: “He takes a very academic and very practical approach to, really, everything.”

Johnson came on as Director of Physical Therapy at the Spine Hospital. He earned his doctoral degree in physical therapy and his Manual Therapy Certification, and he began teaching orthopedics courses.

Today he is active in national organizations and in research on orthopedics, physical therapy and spine health. He teaches students, helps run the day-to-day operations of the Spine Hospital and treats patients, working closely with the doctors. He explains, “One thing the doctors really believe in is not jumping right to surgery. So they’ll ask, ‘Can you evaluate and treat this patient? Let’s see how they do. If they don’t do well and we’re really convinced it’s coming mainly from the spine, we’ll revisit the idea of spine surgery. But let’s get everything else optimal before we go there.’ ”

And Dr. McCormick, in turn, is grateful for Dr. Johnson’s depth and breadth of background. “He’s not just a spine person. He understands the broader context of it: the relationships between hip issues and back issues, back issues and neck issues, the shoulder. Really, in that way he has advanced both the science and the practice of both operative and nonoperative management of patients with spinal disorders.”

Operative and nonoperative. Science and practice. Academic and physical. Teaching and learning. Dr. Johnson works at the nexus of all these opposites. And, says Dr. McCormick, “He’s not just the doctors’ physical therapist. He’s the physical therapists’ physical therapist. I think there’s no higher compliment than that.”

Learn more about Dr. Johnson on his bio page here.

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