A Third-generation Surgeon Looks to the Future

Jan 24, 2019 at 11:38 pm by Staff


Matthew Johnston, MD continues the family tradition of leadership

"My dad always told me that a good surgeon knows when to operate, and a great surgeon knows when not to operate."

Somewhere in the home of Matthew A. Johnston, MD, is a photograph taken in an operating room of Orlando Regional Medical Center more than 30 years ago. You would be forgiven if you looked at Dr. Johnston and thought there is something familiar about the doctors and nurses in that picture. Not just familiar, but familial.

In the photograph, Johnston's grandfather is the lead surgeon, his father is the intern, his uncle, who is also a surgeon is there, and one of the nurses is his aunt. His mother, also a nurse, is in the room, too, although she is behind the photographer.

"I grew up in medicine," Johnston said. "I guess you could call it the family business. Almost everybody in my family is in medicine in one way or another. Besides my grandfather, father and uncle, who were all surgeons, my grandmother was a nurse, my mother a nurse, and my aunts were nurses."

ORMC is not only the same hospital where his grandfather and father were both thoracic surgeons, it is the place where Matthew was born, and where nurses and staff still remember him as a boy coming to see his father or to tag along on weekend rounds.

With a family full of medical professionals, family gatherings and holiday dinners were a little different from non-medical families. "I remember lots of conversations about various cases, new diagnostic modalities, and things going on at the hospital," he said. "I was attracted to a career in medicine in part because I got to see the impact that medicine had on people's lives and the community."

Today, Johnston is a fellowship-trained thoracic surgeon at Orlando Health UF Health Cancer Center. Thoracic surgery involves the organs inside the chest. He is certified in laparoscopic surgery by the Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons.

After graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of South Florida Honors College, Johnston earned his medical degree from Florida State University College of Medicine in Tallahassee. He went on to complete a general surgery residency with Orlando Health and a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he has served as an instructor in thoracic surgery.

Some aspects of surgery - the technical ability to make smaller incisions and the precision of certain procedures have improved dramatically since when the earlier generations of Johnstons were operating. "They didn't have the benefits of all the tools we have today," he said.

But other things are timeless. "The number one quality that a surgeon must have is compassion for the patient and what that patient is going through," said Johnston. Patients are often referred to him before their disease has been diagnosed. "Patients should come into the surgeon's office with an open mind, expecting that we will listen to them. Surgery is all about them, and they have a big say in what happens and how.

"My dad always told me that a good surgeon knows when to operate, and a great surgeon knows when not to operate."

Even though he comes from a surgical heritage, Johnston said his family did not pressure him to enter medicine or to become a surgeon. They let him decide, and that decision came early.

"Practicing medicine is one of those honorable professions," he said. "And surgery is more of a hands-on way of treatment. You get to see some of that immediate impact you can have on a patient's life and help them take care of what's going on quickly as opposed to treating something with medication for months and then seeing how things respond. You can basically cure cancer in a matter of hours."

It probably is not surprising that being hands-on is also how Johnston likes to relax. He is an avid woodworker, who builds furniture. Several tables and a computer desk all are the products of his labor.

If he's not sawing and sanding, chances are he might be crawling underneath an American-made muscle car, figuring out how to give it a little more muscle. "I still have my first car, a 1995 Mustang GT," he admits a little sheepishly at first. And then he begins to list all of the things he has done to the car to make it even faster.

But, married with three daughters, age five and younger, Johnston has some more complex responsibilities, too. "I don't know if any of them want to go into medicine, but it would be great," he said. And just as it was with him, he doesn't intend to push his children into medical careers. Yet, you cannot help but imagine what some of those family conversations might be like in the years ahead.