December 19, 2022

“The interest of Africans at heart”: Ghanaian partners reflect on Dr. Tim Johnson’s impact

Enyonam Yao Kwawukume (second from right) at the opening of the Family Health Medical School with other invited leaders and guests, including Tim Johnson (second row).

News that Professor Timothy Johnson was honored by the University this year for his commitment to international education was celebrated not only in Ann Arbor, but in Ghana too, where Johnson has focused much of his career on establishing in-country Ob-Gyn training programs.

Johnson, the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Women’s and Gender Studies, received the 2022 President’s Award for Distinguished Service in International Education this fall, which the University bestows upon those who advance international education opportunities for students. Importantly, not just for U-M students.

“Certainly, Dr. Johnson has a legacy in Ghana, particularly in obstetrics training,” said Samuel Oppong, an Ob-Gyn physician and lecturer at the University of Ghana Medical School and a former mentee of Johnson’s. “Like me, most of our current and past trainees have benefitted from Dr. Johnson's influence, either directly or indirectly.”

When Johnson started traveling to Ghana in the mid-1980s, the country had very few physicians specializing in obstetrics and no in-country training program for obstetricians; doctors seeking specialty training had to travel outside Ghana to get it, and most never returned. A fellowship program Johnson helped establish through the Ghana College of Physicians and Surgeons has changed that dynamic. According to one 2022 study published in BJOG, of 245 Ob-Gyns graduated through the program between 1989 and 2017, 241 continue to practice in Ghana.

Among them is Oppong, who visited U-M for a three month observership in 2014.

“He took personal interest in our stay and, knowing the setting of our practice in Ghana, he made sure we participated in programs that would benefit us practically,” Oppong said. “More than that, I remember during my time in Ann Arbor that he would visit us at the North Campus on weekends to check on us and inquire about our families back home. He was so caring.”

Oppong isn’t alone. UMMS has hosted hundreds of Ghanaian trainees over the last two decades, many of those visits organized and facilitated by Johnson directly. Importantly, many of the trainees have since moved into leadership positions themselves back in Ghana. By virtue of Johnson’s engagement, Michigan Medicine now has ties to virtually every medical school, teaching hospital, and health system in the country.

Samuel Oppong (second from right) enjoying his observership at Michigan Medicine with two other Ghanaian fellows and UMMS colleagues.

“From the first time I met him in 1996, it was clear that Dr. Johnson has the interests of Africans at heart,” said Professor Enyonam Yao Kwawukume, Founder and President of Family Health University College in Accra and longtime Johnson collaborator. “He is a great teacher, a good listener, and a mentor to all who approach him. It is not surprising that many of his students have become heads of departments, deans and provosts of our medical schools.”

Johnson’s impact in Kwawukume’s Family Health University College is reflected in the name of the institution’s medical library: the Tim Johnson Library Complex was dedicated in 2015.

“Collaborating with Professor Johnson means continuous learning, and a readiness to explore the unknown,” Kwawukume said. “From him, I have learned humility – believing in the potential of others people and encouraging them to realize their dreams.”

Johnson’s legacy, while focused in obstetrics, doesn’t stop there. The training model he helped to create has since been adopted  not only by other disciplines within Ghana but increasingly by other countries in the region as well, including Ethiopia and Rwanda.

“Dr. Johnson deserves all of the honor bestowed upon him and more. He has served beyond America and Ghana,” Oppong said. “He believes fervently in the African Dream: a belief that if Africans are training and given the opportunity, they can address the problems that confront them.”