Just because Dr. Gina Johnson, a pediatrician who works for the San Fernando Health Center, has a singsong voice and, because of her petite physique and unlined face, looks like she’d be carded in any bar she goes into doesn’t mean she’s a ball of fluff.
You don’t regularly run in marathons — and by her count Johnson has run in 15 of them, including the annual biggies in LA, New York and Boston — if you’re a wimp.
You’re not one as a doctor, either, since you make diagnosis and decisions that affect people’s health and people’s lives.
Johnson, 43, grew up in Granada Hills, one of two daughters to Curtis, a former microbiologist at Valley Presbyterian now working as a manager for the Fresenius Dialysis Centers, and Shiela, who’s retired. Both parents graduated from San Fernando High. Her older sister, Lauree Johnson-Pittman, teaches at Monroe High.
A graduate of LA Baptist High (now the south campus of Heritage Christian), Johnson completed her pre-med undergraduate studies at Stanford, then four years at UCLA’s David Geffin School of Medicine, followed by her residency at Children’s Hospital in Oakland.
When it was time to get a job. Johnson knew exactly where she wanted to be — here in the San Fernando Valley.
“I grew up in this community. This is where I wanted to work, this is what I wanted to do,” Johnson said. “I decided I wanted to go into pediatrics because I think the ability to influence another generation, and help families to raise their children and be successful parts of society, is an honor and a privilege.”
She immersed herself in learning Spanish in part by going to Costa Rica during her residency, because “if you don’t speak it properly, people don’t trust you understand what you are saying.” She has spent the last 15 years tending to children and teens in San Fernando and other communities.
“Lots of my patients go to Maclay Middle School, San Fernando High School, [or] are neighbors,” Johnson said. “Now I am part of the family for some of my patients. Sometimes I’m seeing kids I’ve seen for 10-12 years. Some of my patients were teenagers when I first came to work; now they’re married and they’re bringing their kids back to see me.
“It’s amazing to see them come back and seeing them be successful where they’re going to college and helping their parents make decisions about education and healthcare, making sure they are fit and healthy.”
She began running in high school as a member of the cross-country team, and used it as a “stress-reliever” during her college and medical school days. In 2003, a classmate from medical school who was driving to Texas suggested they train for and run in the 2004 LA Marathon. Johnson convinced her mom, who had done some coaching of the LA Baptist High cross-country team, to run with her.
Her friend didn’t return for the race. But Johnson and Shiela “got hooked” on marathons. Her personal best time is 3-hours and 13-minutes, which Johnson accomplished in 2015.
She has worked with Students Run LA participants, including those in San Fernando, to train and prepare for the LA Marathon. “For younger kids, it can teach life lessons beyond just running and physical fitness. It teaches that you can pursue something, and you can reach that goal even if it takes you weeks or months to get there.”
Johnson also realized her passion could serve another, charitable purpose.
“I’ve run for a charity in the LA Marathon since 2009 called Team World Vision, which provides clean water in Africa,” Johnson said. “It’s a Christian humanitarian organization. They have a lot of different things they do, including child sponsorship. But the marathon piece of it is to specifically provide clean water.
“There are 10 countries in Africa where we’re trying to end the clean water crisis. The average person in those countries walks six kilometers (3.7 miles) to an unclean water source to provide water for their family.”
She is also a member of Northeast Valley Health Corporation’s charity group Team NEVHC, which has appeared in the past two Santa Clarita Half Marathon races. This year’s 135-member team — comprised of runners, walkers and volunteers — raised $27,000 toward a new medical center for Santa Clarita.
Johnson, incidentally, has won the women’s division the past two years.
But she hasn’t stopped there. In May, Johnson, Shiela and the World Vision team ran in the Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa, a 56-mile race that began at the Scottsville Racecourse in the city of Pietermaritzburg, and ended at the city of Durbin.
Participants are given 12 hours — and no more — to complete the race.
“My goal was to do it in under nine hours,” said Johnson, who finished in eight hours and 56 minutes, and plans to participate in the 2017 race.
She plans to provide medical care in the Valley for a long time. She wants to keep running forever.
And she tells anyone and everyone that they, too, can run a marathon.
“Anyone can do it,” she said. “I tell [people] the same thing: one step at a time. Each step takes you closer to your goal. And you keep going. I have the opportunity to be able to talk about physical fitness, and have the integrity to say ‘I’m not just talking, this is actually how I live. It’s good for me and good for you, too.’”