Shade Tree Clinic Founder Remembered

From the Spring 2020 edition of Vanderbilt Medicine Magazine

Shade Tree Clinic co-founder and VUSM alumna Katie Cox Johnson, third from right, with, from left, Shade Tree Clinic medical director Robert Miller, MD; VUSM alumnae and clinic volunteers Dana Guyer and Sara Corr; former VUSM Dean Steven Gabbe, MD; former Vanderbilt University Chancellor Gordon Gee; Pat Temple, MD; and clinic co-founder Kristina Collins.

In 2004 Vanderbilt medical students and classmates Katie Cox and Kristina Collins approached then-VUSM Dean, Steven Gabbe, MD, and Bonnie Miller, MD, then Associate Dean for Medical Students, with a proposal to establish a free medical student-run clinic to serve Nashville’s uninsured population. What started as a summer project resulted in their co-founding the Shade Tree Clinic, which has endured and is considered a foundational clinical experience for VUSM students.

“Katie was always so determined and relentlessly optimistic. She and Kristina had a broad vision about opening a free clinic in Nashville and had done an extensive citywide evaluation and needs assessment to ensure that our offering was not just the dream of idealistic medical students, but something that the city and its residents wanted and needed. When I joined the team, I was impressed by the scope of their planning and the clinic development quickly turned into an enormous project, securing administrative support, funding, finding a building and creating a model that would be helpful to the community, yet sustainable for the school,” said Dana Guyer, MD’08, the first student co-executive director of Shade Tree.

Katie Cox Johnson, MD’07, died Sept. 11, 2019. She was 38. The legacy she left in Nashville and on VUSM cannot be overstated.

“There are few, if any, graduates who had the kind of impact on Vanderbilt that Katie and Kristina had. I don’t think they could have imagined at the time what their summer project would lead to,” said Miller, now Vice President for Educational Affairs at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who worked closely with the students to establish the clinic.

Johnson grew up in Powell, Tennessee, and was valedictorian of her high school class. She was a graduate of Rhodes College and attended VUSM as a Canby Robinson Scholar.

Johnson’s VUSM roommate, Jessica Sparks Lilley, MD’07, recalled their time together as students.

“She was such a loyal friend. We learned that we could climb out her window and sit on the roof, and we spent many evenings talking about life while watching the sun set. Our favorite thing to do after a big exam was to watch a movie at the theater, so we saw several films we wouldn’t otherwise have seen because we’d run out of options after big exam times — and we discovered some of our favorites that way,” Lilley said.

While in medical school, Johnson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and changed her career plans from neurosurgery to emergency medicine and served her residency at VUMC.

“She was a survivor and she persevered through so much hardship. She pushed herself to achieve and did it all with a huge smile on her face,” said Collins, Shade Tree Clinic co-founder. “She was such a stoic person — her cheerful and sweet demeanor unwavering through it all. Katie spent most of the time she was given in her far-too-short life dedicating herself to helping others and to lifting other people up. She traded in a currency of positivity, hope and compassion.”

Today at Shade Tree Clinic, VUSM and Vanderbilt nursing students, under the supervision of physicians, provide urgent and chronic walk-in care for the area’s uninsured patients. The clinic also provides health education and patient referrals and acts as a bridge between the medically underserved community and other components of the region’s health care system. Since opening, Shade Tree has provided cost-free medical, social and pharmaceutical support to more than 4,000 patients. In 2017-2018, the clinic was the primary medical home to approximately 400 uninsured, underserved and homeless patients, and students provided nearly 2,500 medical visits.

“Katie and Kristina spent two years creating Shade Tree for Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Their efforts, along with ongoing support from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and VUSM, changed the culture of our medical school. Since 2005, almost every Vanderbilt medical student has contributed to the clinic in some way,” said Robert Miller, MD, one of the clinic’s medical co-directors. “Many of our graduates have left legacies after graduating from Vanderbilt. I do not know of two students who more fully achieved this status before graduating.”

Johnson and Collins were recognized for their contributions as honorees at the Shade Tree Benefit Dinner and Auction held in February.

Johnson, who was diagnosed with cancer, was preceded in death by her father, Gordon Cox Jr., and is survived by her mother, Susan White, brother, Matthew Aaron Cox, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, and her beloved dog, Hattie.

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