Nathan Johnson joins North Big Horn Hospital emergency staff

Ryan Fitzmaurice
With the new emergency department at North Big Horn Hospital comes a new emergency medicine physician in Nathan Johnson, who brings experience, enthusiasm and a desire for connection into the practice of medicine. 

Patients will primarily find Johnson in the emergency room, where he will oversee and assist in trauma and EMS services, but a range of other specialties, including stroke care and cardiovascular disease, will allow him to provide cross-coverage in other hospital departments, as well. 

Johnson brings nearly 30 years of experience to the position, beginning as an EMT before attending and graduating medical school in 1998.

It wasn’t where his path started, but a desire for excitement and a desire to please his mother soon pushed him toward medicine. 

“I went to school to be an engineer, and it kind of bored me,” Johnson said. “I knew the only thing my mother would be happy with me switching into would be medicine. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t want to make Mom mad. Guess I’m going to be a doctor.’”

Johnson graduated from Ohio State and then began his medical training at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he also did his residency. In 2005, he joined the Cleveland Clinic, staying there until earlier this year when he left to join North Big Horn Hospital.

“In that hospital, I did everything. I was the stroke director. I was the Chief of Hospital Staff; that’s the president of the physicians of the hospital. I was the director of the EMS system. I was the director of the emergency department. I did everything,” Johnson said. “I really liked it. There were a lot of great people there.”

Johnson was well-regarded, successful and secure, but he was losing touch with what made medicine important to him.

“It got to the point where I just wasn’t spending as much time with patients as (I wanted to),” Johnson said. “It was too busy. It was frantic, and a lot of times I found myself wanting to talk more to patients and didn’t have the time. You find yourself thinking that you’d like to say something to that person, but you can’t, because that’ll open a conversation that I don’t have time for. I kept thinking to myself it’s time to go to a place where I can enjoy talking to my patients and not just treating my patients.”

There’s a magic about small towns like Lovell, where the relationship between yourself and others becomes paramount, Johnson said. It’s a dynamic lost in the anonymity of a large city like Cleveland. 

“I was in a small town before, and you have to have a relationship. You have to be prepared to see that person or that person’s kids in the grocery store,” Johnson said. “People look you in the eye in a small town.”

It’s also just undeniably true that creating a relationship results in better medicine being practiced, Johnson added. 

“People have a better opinion of your abilities as a doctor the more time you spend with them. It’s just an age-old fact,” Johnson said. “And, you are better. You make a lot less mistakes. So many times I have learned things that have mattered medically learning about the patients family and other things. It’s so important to have a relaxed conversation.”

Johnson arrived in town on March 20 and began his work at NBHH soon after. He said the pace of the work here has allowed him to focus in on slowing down and spending time with those he treats.

“I felt the other day I was busy, but we only saw seven patients in 24 hours,” Johnson said. “I came from a place if I did a 12-hour-shift, I would see 20 patients. I did 24 hours and I saw seven. That’s better. That compares better. It’s just to get to know people, you know.”

One of the things Johnson appreciates about working in the emergency department is the ever-evolving nature of it, with all manner of patients facing different problems needing assistance. Johnson has the ability and experience to tackle most all of it, but treating strokes is his specialty, he said.

“I’m a stroke guy. I was the stroke director back in Ohio. My great-grandfather had a disabling stroke when I was about 8 years old, and he lived another 20 years with my grandmother taking care of him, helping him use the bathroom pushing him in a wheelchair. That left a mark on me,” Johnson said. “What’s amazing to me is that, if my grandfather had that stroke today, he would have been walking out of the hospital. That made a big difference on me. That’s why I took up stroke.”

Being able to offer stroke care is especially crucial in a rural community like Lovell. 

“In a town like this, you can make such a difference with stroke. If you can give the appropriate medication within that narrow time frame, you can make the difference between someone coming home to live like they did and living in the nursing home,” Johnson continued. “It’s best to be treated within three hours. We can go up to four-and-a-half, but the sooner the better. Literally billions of your brain cells die every minute. It’s insane the difference it makes. When it’s an hour-and-a-half to Billings, the difference you make caring for it here is staggering.”

Outside of the hospital, Johnson and his family love the outdoors and are psyched to explore the area. He has four children, a 20-year-old attending Ohio State, an 18-year-old graduating from high school in Ohio and attending Ohio State next year, and a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old prepared to move to Lovell after finishing the school year in Ohio.

For all the accolades Dr. Johnson might bring with him, he admits the Johnson who Lovell residents will know the most is his wife Beth.

“People who don’t know me yet, by the end of the summer they may not know me but they will know my wife,” Johnson said. “I will be known as Beth’s husband at the end of this month. She has all kinds of energy and always gets involved in the community. We’re excited to live here.”