Meet our Docs: Lauren Johnson, MD, brings rheumatology care to Casper and Wyoming
By Kristy Bleizeffer Sep 16, 2020
Growing up in Rawlins, Lauren Johnson, MD, knows what it’s like to travel many miles for specialized health care. At 17, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and she traveled to and from Colorado, often on Wyoming winter roads.
Having just completed her rheumatology fellowship in June, she’s returned to Wyoming to offer rheumatology care to patients in Casper and across the state, saving patients the long trips she once made herself.
“It really is a great honor to be here. Having grown up in Wyoming, and going to high school in Rawlins, it feels like I’m coming home,” she said. “I’m in a really unique position, and I'm excited to work with all the colleagues that I'll have at WMC and excited to meet my patients. I feel like I’m a bit of a unicorn with this opportunity.”
Dr. Johnson is welcoming new patients to Wyoming Arthritis and Rheumatology, a new practice bringing this much-needed specialty care to Casper. Read more about her background and training in the interview below.
Where did you grow up, and how did you become interested in medicine?
I grew up in Rawlins. I'm the first member of my family to enter the medical profession in any capacity. My mom was a teacher and then a newspaper editor and photographer. My dad worked for the Union Pacific Railroad as a conductor for nearly 50 years. I would have to give him credit for my initial interest in science and math.
When I was 17, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. My own interactions with the healthcare system really sparked my initial interest and inspired me to consider medicine as a career.
What about those interactions do you think made the spark?
I think with my foundation interests in math and science, I was already headed in the direction of something in a scientific field. While I was reading about my own condition and trying to learn why it had happened, going through what every patient goes through, I found it really interesting. I latched on to rheumatology immediately and, throughout the years, nothing else was quite as interesting to me as immunology and rheumatology.
Tell us about your training.
I attended the University of Wyoming, and I earned a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology. I was then accepted into the WWAMI Medical Education Program which is a medical school partnership between Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. I started my first year of medical training at the University of Wyoming, and then I moved to the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle which was my first time living outside of Wyoming. I completed my second year of medical school there. Finally, I moved to Spokane, WA, for my third and fourth clinical years. I ended up staying in Spokane for my residency as well, which was another three years.
I was then accepted into the rheumatology fellowship program at the University of Wisconsin for my two-year fellowship. I graduated from there in June.
So you have been gone from Wyoming for quite a while. How's it feel to be back?
Really good actually. I'm a fourth generation Wyomingite, so I've been looking forward to returning home after years of training. Nearly all my family still lives here so it's really nice to be close to them again. I'm also looking forward to fulfilling my commitment to the WWAMI program.
What kinds of conditions does a rheumatologist treat?
I think when people hear the word rheumatology, they think primarily of arthritis. And we do treat arthritis, but there are over 100 types of arthritis alone. Outside of that, I think from a broader perspective, the label that we place on many of the conditions we treat is “autoimmune.” Rheumatologists primarily treat autoimmune conditions, which is when the body's own immune system is attacking healthy tissues.
Autoimmunity is a very broad category, so we treat everything from joint inflammation to muscle inflammation to nerve and blood vessel inflammation. Even though arthritis is the most common condition we treat, we see a large variety of diagnoses.
How does it feel to bring this much-needed specialty to your home state?
I’ve had the personal experience of driving six hours round trip to a specialist in Colorado, so I feel privileged that I can provide specialist care to people in Wyoming. I’m very happy to be here.
There is a nationwide shortage of rheumatology care, and most rheumatologists are clustered in urban areas. I’m happy to be able to provide increased access and convenience in Wyoming.
What are your impressions so far of Casper’s medical community and Wyoming Medical Center?
One of the big reasons that I wanted to practice in Casper is the immediate access to other medical specialists. Rheumatology is definitely not an island. We have to work closely with a lot of other specialists to take care of our patients, because most of the diseases we see tend to affect other organ systems. We work closely with nephrology and neurology and many other specialties. It's really important that I have support nearby to take good care of patients. Having everything here was one of the main reasons that I thought Wyoming Medical Center was so great.