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Dr. Mom Thrives

Kara Johnson survived the sleep deprivation, bouts of morning sickness and maternal angst common to most new mothers. She also endured the rigors of being a medical student: four years laden with long hours of study and lab work, exam anxiety, an...

Kara Johnson and grandkids

Kara Johnson survived the sleep deprivation, bouts of morning sickness and maternal angst common to most new mothers.

She also endured the rigors of being a medical student: four years laden with long hours of study and lab work, exam anxiety, and more sleep deprivation.

What's unusual: She managed to handle both at once - give birth to two children while attending medical school.

Actually, thriving in medical school.

Johnson graduated from the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences eight days ago as one of the top students in a class of 54 doctors, receiving several academic awards.


Last year, as a third-year medical student - the year she gave birth to her second child - the Fargo woman was named the top student, and given the school's most prestigious scholarship as recognition.

"Her achievements are truly outstanding," says Judy DeMers, the medical school's associate dean for student affairs. "She is just totally amazing. The other students are kind of in awe of her."

During her first year, Johnson returned to the classroom just two weeks after giving birth to her first child by emergency Caesarean section.

Faculty at the medical school recently remarked that she completed her entire second year without missing a single question on her exams, DeMers says.

It wasn't easy for Johnson, a 1991 graduate of Fargo South High and a 1998 pharmacy graduate of North Dakota State University. She credits her husband, Garret, with providing the support that made her study of medicine combined with motherhood possible.

"I sacrificed my sleep, basically," she says. "You get used to that after awhile."

Johnson's most difficult time probably came during her third year, with extensive rotations in a variety of medical specialties. One week she worked 120 hours. The surgery rotation proved especially challenging.

Early in that pregnancy, when she battled morning sickness almost every day, noxious smells in the operating room sometimes made her nauseous. Later on, the long hours of standing in the OR to observe procedures strained her feet and back.


Mostly, though, it required lots of hard work, discipline - and help from Garret, a pharmacist who served in the dual roles of breadwinner and heavily domesticated dad.

"It's a lot of teamwork," he says. "I've gotten an idea what it's like for single parents, almost."

Garret eagerly supported his wife's decision to enter medical school. He saw how she wasn't satisfied with a career in pharmacy, even though she received two years of additional training in clinical pharmacology, including a year in a hospital setting.

He pledged to do everything he could to help her get through medical school. But the couple agreed she would attend medical school while they started a family.

"I knew going into medical school that I'd have a lot to juggle," she says.

If anything, the three years of medical residency training in internal medicine will be more grueling than medical school. And getting established as a doctor also is intense. So they agreed postponing motherhood wouldn't make it any easier.

Tackling medical school and motherhood isn't unusual, DeMers says. Still, most medical students who have children enter the program with children. And having not just one, but two children while in medical school is rare.

To handle their juggling act, the Johnsons worked out a routine.


Kara rises early, about 6 a.m., to get ready for school. Garret handles taking their kids - Elyse, 3, and Aiden, less than a year old - to day care. Then it's off to school for Kara, off to work for Garret.

Early evenings are family time. Kara, the better cook, usually prepares supper. They put the kids to bed around 8:30 or 9 p.m. Then Kara hits the books, often until 1 a.m.

Repeat the next day.

"It worked out really well," she says. "We're just fortunate that everything seems to fall in place when we need them to."

Despite the demands of medical school, she has been on hand for most of her children's early milestones, except, ironically, for a Mother's Day event at day care.

Returning to school just two weeks after the birth of her first child was born was emotionally difficult for Kara; she felt so guilty about being away from her new daughter.

"I was having a lot of thoughts about balancing motherhood and career," she says. "I think I can be both."

Now, when she takes her kids to the doctor she's the squeamish surrogate patient, wincing when they have shots.


An internal medicine practice will allow her more flexibility than certain other specialties; she could work part time, or just in a clinical setting.

After her graduation ceremony, the Johnsons gathered with family for a celebratory steak-and-shrimp dinner. Today, in an interlude between medical school and her residency training, she's enjoying a quiet day with family at her in-laws' Minnesota lake place.

"I feel pretty relaxed," she says. "Stress free for the next couple of weeks."

Then soon it will be off to Minneapolis, where Kara will begin three years of internal medicine residency training June 16 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital.

The Johnsons have bought a home in Eagan, and the transition will be smoothed a bit because Garret will start his new pharmacy job in mid-July. After Kara completes her residency, she hopes to return to North Dakota to practice medicine.

"It'll be more challenges," Garret says. But he predicts his wife will do well, and he will manage on the home front.

They have the system down by now.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522


Kara Johnson and grandkids

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