Former EMT, flight paramedic now sees patients in clinic

Physician Assistant Bryan Johnson has cared for patients on the road, in the air

Sanford Health provider and patient talk in an exam room while wearing surgical masks.

Bryan Johnson most often accompanies his search for excitement with a desire to help people. It has taken him to great heights — literally in this case — but also pushed him and his career forward.

However you want to measure it, he’s covered a lot of ground and made a few unconventional stops along the way. In doing so he’s furthered the cause of Sanford’s commitment to rural health care.

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Now a physician assistant at Sanford Health clinics in Canby, Minnesota, and Clear Lake, South Dakota, Johnson is specializing in primary care and family medicine. He will be doing same-day acute care in Canby and developing his own practice in Clear Lake.

His career in medicine began as an emergency medical technician. Soon after, he made the transition from an EMT to becoming a flight paramedic who went out on helicopter calls for Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in Minnesota.

Helicopter calls to office visits

What he has discovered is that his experiences along the way have all contributed to what he is doing now. Caring for people in a helicopter has helped him do the same at his clinics.

“You see some of the worst-case scenarios as a flight paramedic,” Johnson said. “Being able to help those people is probably the most beneficial and rewarding part of the job. When the smaller service areas call for a helicopter, you know there are reasons for it. In those cases we’re not only helping the patient, we’re helping the provider and their staff.”

There are many aspects to being a flight paramedic that involve challenges that might not immediately be apparent. Things like noise can become an obstacle. And what about flying at night? Or administering care in extreme temperatures? What about when the helicopter tilts or sways and there is a patient onboard?

“There is quite a range of patients we take up into the air,” Johnson said. “We also wear a lot of different hats when we’re up there. We’re very fortunate with Sanford to have the best and safest pilots and the best programs.”

‘A passion to help other people’

While working as a flight paramedic, Johnson enrolled at Bemidji State University in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree that he hoped would lead to another door opening in health care. The next step was a master’s degree at the University of North Dakota with the target becoming a physician assistant. The door opened, in this instance, and kept opening.

“I’m in love with medicine,” Johnson said. “It’s really become a passion to help other people and my community.”

It’s important to note that these career decisions were all accompanied by a significant commitment in time, effort and additional education. They also came with stringent national certification processes.

Unless Johnson was all in, he wasn’t going to get to where he wanted to go.

“As a paramedic I was missing the part about having a good patient care connection,” he said. “I want to know my patients for more than just 20 minutes or during the course of an hour-and-a-half transport. I wanted to follow up with them and make sure they were doing fine the next day. Or be able to see them in two months and ask how they’re feeling.”

In his role as a paramedic in Bemidji and as a physician assistant at Sanford clinics in eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota, Johnson has related to the challenge of rural health care on Sanford’s behalf.

In Bemidji he was part of a team that brought patients to the care they needed. While working at a rural clinic, he’s taking that care to patients who might otherwise need to travel inconvenient distances.

He’s an admitted adrenaline junkie — he lists competing in rodeos as one of his hobbies — who has advanced his quest for adventure constructively. His time in the air is something that will serve him well as he moves forward in this new role.

“I drove myself and pushed myself to be a PA,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I’m going to be happy. I’m going to love visiting with my patients.”

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Posted In Bemidji, Canby, Clear Lake, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, Health Care Heroes, Physicians and APPs

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