Dr. Debra Johnson, a partner at The Plastic Surgery Center of Sacramento, told me that the population of her little Central Valley hometown of Exeter was largely composed of Dust Bowl migrants and Mexican farmworkers, so her Spanish has a tinge of a Southern accent.
She grew up poor and didn’t have television in her family home until she was almost out of high school. She was making the point that she wasn’t the kid you’d naturally pick out and say: That little girl is going to go to medical school, specialize in plastic surgery and one day take the reins of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
Yet, late last month, she did. Johnson is operating at the very height of her profession. The society’s immediate past president, Dr. David Song of Chicago, informed me that Johnson also recently joined the board of the American Board of Plastic Surgery, the certifying organization for their profession. But, he said, she still makes time to lead the legislative committee for the California society.
He ticked off these accomplishments from Johnson’s impressive résumé after explaining why he thinks his colleague has met with success in the field: “She’s not afraid to disagree in a very respectful fashion. She clearly has the larger, broader picture of the good of our organization at the top of her mind, and when things don’t necessarily line up and perhaps when she sees groupthink, she’ll be the first one to say, ‘Whoa! Do we really want to do that, folks?’ She does it with class, style and in a very respectful and sometimes humorous way.”
Song described Johnson as a treasure trove of experience and information, and he called her husband, Mario Gutierrez, the executive director of Sacramento’s Center for Connected Health Policy, one of the secret weapons in her arsenal.
“We had a recent meeting in Napa Valley,” Song said. “Mario cooked for the entire committee of about 30 people. He cooked paella from scratch and made an all-organic menu. Clearly, he didn’t have to do that. He did it while we were in meetings and we went to the house and had this beautiful banquet looking out over the Napa Valley. Mario did that of his own volition, and after we were done, we continued our conversation and he was the one mopping up and cleaning up after us.”
Johnson, 61, met her husband while she was doing a stint with the Indian Health Service in Lake County as repayment of financial aid at Stanford University’s medical school. Gutierrez, who was then working for the California Indian Health Board, helped her navigate a sticky workplace situation, and while doing so, the pair fell in love. Married for 33 years, they have an adult son and daughter.
As leader of the board of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, Johnson is the organization’s chief spokesperson with the media, in testimony to legislative bodies and in letters sent on behalf of her peers. During her term, she said, she wants to continue to expand the diversity of individuals serving on the organization’s executive board and committees.
Her interest in medicine began at Exeter High School in the early 1970s when her mother worked as a receptionist for one of two general practitioners in town.
In her junior year, after working in the sweaty confines of a produce packinghouse with her farm-manager father and subsequently for a fabric store, Johnson went to her mom’s boss and told him she had an interest in medicine.
“He said, ‘Well, you should get some experience. Let me see what I can do,’ ” Johnson recalled. “He was able to get me a job working as a clerk in the emergency room, so I think the summer after my junior year, I started working in the emergency room and I really liked it.”
She majored in biological science at University of California, Irvine, before heading to Stanford to study medicine. She worked the first two years in an oncology laboratory at Stanford because the university offered discounted tuition to students who did so.
“At that time, we were doing some work on cell-surface antigens, trying to figure out if we could use the immune system to fight cancer by determining what cancer cells had specifically on their surface that we could attack that were different from the rest of your cells,” Johnson said. “It ultimately ended up that the lab, not me, but the lab discovered a drug called Rituxan, which was the first silver bullet anti-lymphoma drug.”
Johnson was so enthralled by the work in that lab that she was certain she had found her specialty, but then after a plastic surgery rotation, one of her professors asked her to come and be a translator for a group of doctors headed to Mexico to correct facial deformities for children with cleft palates. All the work was done for free.
“I did that for a week, and I said, ‘If I could do this the rest of my life, I’m changing gears completely,’ ” Johnson told me. “I liked the field. I liked the people, and I really liked the opportunity to give back. It was so fulfilling to take a kid who would otherwise have no chance because of the way they looked and give them the opportunity to go to school, get a job, get married and to have a life. It was just really powerful.”
The power of it so moves Johnson that her voice goes hoarse and her eyes well up as she talks about her dozens of trips abroad to perform surgeries on children around the world. She has remained a general plastic surgeon because she loves variety, rather than choose one subset of the field as many plastic surgeons do, she said.
“Today, I did three cleft lips,” she told me. “Yesterday, I was in the office all day. The day before that, I did a woman who had 30-year-old breast implants that had turned to cement and had broken and were nasty. I took all those out, put in new implants under the muscle, refashioned her skin to give her a normal-looking breast again. Then I did somebody who’d had cancer surgery and had a big scar. I did scar revision. I like doing all sorts of things.”