Ideas into Action MUSC’s health promotion director Susan Johnson emerges as a leader in Charleston’s wellness movement

Susan L. Johnson, director of health promotion at the Medical University of South Carolina, has not only worked to make the MUSC campus a more healthy environment but collaborated with others to extend wellness to the greater community.

In the past three years, a renaissance of wellness has emerged in Charleston and among its vanguard is the Medical University of South Carolina’s health promotion director, Susan Johnson.

The 48-year-old has been a driving force in collaborations to create an award-winning wellness campus, which includes a tobacco-free environment, an on-site urban farm and just this week, an adjacent outdoor fitness park.

Her work, however, hasn’t been confined to campus boundaries.

Johnson has worked with the MUSC Wellness Center and Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission on a pilot “Adventure Out” program. She also has been part of the local chapter of Eat Smart, Move More Charleston Trident and the city’s Lighten Up Charleston.

She finds ways to spread the gospel of health, including co-hosting a show “Dr. J & TheFatGuy” with Mike Campbell on Tuesdays on The Wolf 96.9. They also record health and wellness tips that run on Cumulus Media radio stations in the Charleston area.

Even before fruit bears, Johnson already is at work planting more seeds. Most recently it was working to develop a half-price, limited-use wellness center membership for MUSC employees to be rolled out next week and working with Coca-Cola Bottling Company in efforts to install vending machines that promote drinking water and portion-controlled soft drinks. This fall, she’ll work with Debi’s Kids to encourage people to buy gifts that encourage activity for children.

Former MUSC President Ray Greenberg saw Johnson’s special qualities shortly after her hiring and helped her cut through bureaucracies to achieve her vision not only for MUSC but the metro Charleston community and the Palmetto State.

“Dr. Johnson is a high-energy person who has developed a number of innovative wellness programs at the Medical University,” says Greenberg, who is now the executive vice chancellor for health affairs at The University of Texas System, noting her achievements.

“These efforts have been recognized with statewide awards, but the real benefit has been in the improvement of the lives of so many employees and people in the community.”

Those awards for MUSC include three from the South Carolina Hospital Association and North Carolina Prevention Partners, including this week’s Gold Medal for providing the highest standard of excellence in creating a physically active workplace, as well as a Gold Star for achieving a tobacco-free campus and a Gold Apple for improving nutrition on campus.

For her efforts, the Charleston Regional Business Journal recently recognized her as one of three “Rising Stars” in the 2013 Influential Women in Business awards ceremony.

Behind her All-American appearance is an analytical mind that seeks out partners to help turn ideas into actions that have the broadest impact possible.

For example, she’s realistic about the limited impact of programs.

“You’ve got to think what we can do which will have the most significant impact. For me, it’s environmental changes, it’s cultural changes and it’s policy changes because those things are not dependent on participation in programs,” says Johnson.

“There’s a place for programs but you’ll only get a fraction of people to go those programs. Ultimately, you’re never going to have the participation that you’d like and that can’t be your measure for success. There are a million reasons why people won’t go to the program and usually it involves time.”

She adds, however, that if institutions can make changes to the environment, those changes affect nearly all for the better. Examples at MUSC include having a farmers market on campus, cafeterias that are designed to make healthy choices the easier, affordable options, creating “mini-gyms” in break rooms and making it practically impossible for people to smoke cigarettes.

While MUSC’s campus smoking ban has been in effect less than a year, 200 employees already have gone through its smoking cessation program, says Johnson. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention credited recent national drops in smoking rates largely to government bans.)

“The harder you make it for people to smoke, that ultimately is the reason to quit,” says Johnson, noting, interestingly, that she doesn’t like rules. “Most people know they shouldn’t do things and they just need something to make them change. It’s just human nature.”

Change, especially when it comes to lifestyles, is slow. But Johnson and her allies in wellness are finding and working the angles to make it happen.

Janis Newton, the interim director of the MUSC Wellness Center, has served in the fitness industry in Charleston for more than three decades and says Johnson has a knack for getting things done.

“I’ve never seen someone get so much done is so little time that has made such big differences,” says Newton. “And she does it without wanting any glory for it. To me, she is the embodiment of MUSC’s motto of ‘Changing What’s Possible.’”

Mike Campbell, the chairman of the local Eat Smart, Move More and author of “The Fat Guy Diary,” also has worked with Johnson on several initiatives in addition to the radio show.

“Susan Johnson defines the statement ‘busy people get stuff done,’” says Campbell.

“Susan has been responsible for ‘moving the needle’ in a big way on anti-smoking initiatives and work site wellness. She is involved in more healthy eating or active living organizations and initiatives than I can name. Her efforts to positively affect policies, systems, and environmental change reach far beyond MUSC and the tri-county area. I am honored to volunteer alongside Susan and call her friend.”

One could easily see how the first 45 years of what she herself calls “my crazy life” gave her all the tools for her achievements.

Johnson was raised in a 200-year-old house on 25 acres near the Pocono mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania. Her father, Dr. Brian Johnson, was a geography professor with a deep interest in urban planning. Her mother, Marty Johnson, was a stay-at-home mother who later became a prolific romance and Amish fiction novelist.

Susan was a middle child and she and her older sister, Lori, and older brother, Scott, were active, from sports to doing chores in the family garden plot.

“It was country living. When you’re growing up, you hate it. I always wanted to be in town, but now looking back, it was idyllic,” says Johnson. “Living out there, we were active. We had horses and I rode a lot. We had this great place to ride horses, run, bike, right behind our house. Back then, being active was just a natural thing.”

Marty Johnson recalls how all the children used to complain about their father making them weed and hoe the garden, but they also learned to appreciate the fruits of their labors, such as fresh, sweet corn. And now, she adds, when Susan’s daughters come to visit, they are eager to get in the garden and pick fresh produce.

“It’s a value that’s passed down,” says Marty.

Susan Johnson’s education, both academic and via living, continued well into her adulthood.

She entered East Carolina University in 1983, a time when the school had a reputation as a Playboy magazine top party school, and got swept into the Greek social scene.

“I had a blast, but I really didn’t study and after a couple of years of bad grades, I had to take a break,” recalls Johnson.

She moved to Hilton Head Island and did the “waitress thing” and taught aerobics on the side, then transferred to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and where she finished up in 1992. She was gravitating to wellness, but it was admittedly frustrating.

“I never really had a clear idea of what I wanted to do probably because back then it wasn’t a legitimate profession. That’s something we (physical education majors) still struggle with now. People worked at Y or Parks and Rec, but there wasn’t a professional career path,” says Johnson.

“It’s been an evolving field, but not one that’s been easy to know how to get into and succeed in. There are a lot of jobs out there, but they are all entry levels and no opportunities for growth.”

So in 1992, she moved back to Hilton Head, fell in love with a boat captain and started a kayak business. Four years later, she got a divorce, sold the business and set a new course, which included a brief but interesting stint as a US Airways flight attendant.

“I hated being a flight attendant. I love the travel, but it’s not fun when you’re going back and forth all the time. When you start, you have no seniority. ... I had to wear a beeper all the time and had to be at the airport in an hour. I was living in Jacksonville with a gay guy. It was the craziest summer.”

She would finally find her way, of all places, at The Citadel in the wake of the controversies of females being admitted to the Corps of Cadets.

At The Citadel she found a mentor in Dr. John S. Carter, the former director of the Health, Exercise and Sport Science concentration. He took her under his wing, and she became a graduate student teaching.

At the same time she was studying for her master’s degree, she took a job at the College of Charleston as a part-time wellness coordinator, which included teaching college students who got into trouble about the perils of alcohol abuse.

“This was my first experience of working with college students and they were a really resistant audience, but I liked it,” recalls Johnson. “It made sense. My dad was a college professor and I thought that this is what I need to do.”

After getting her degree, she pursued her doctorate in physical education and pedagogy at the University of South Carolina. At 33, in 1998, her professors were worried about schools dropping physical education from curricula and they set out to find ways to assess it.

She was up for the challenge and wrote her dissertation on how teachers could test students in physical education.

But at a time when her academic and career life was taking shape, her personal life was presenting challenges.

While working on her doctorate, she met and married David Stewart, guitarist for the Charleston-based band Blue Dogs. The band and their wives had been in New York City the weekend before the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. The wives had flown back the day before the attack.

“That changed a lot of people,” says Johnson.

Johnson, who was working at Duke University at the time, finished up and defended her dissertation when she was pregnant with Ameline.

“I probably had the easiest defense (of a dissertation) because I was eight months pregnant at the time and they were afraid they’d set me into labor if they asked me hard questions. Three weeks later, I was hauling all my copies of dissertation in 101 degree heat. I was able to finish.”

In August 2002, Johnson held her doctorate in one hand and her 2-month-old in the other. The couple would go on to have one more child, Georgia, in 2005. But Stewart and Johnson split up in 2008 and got a divorce.

While at Duke, Johnson was fine-tuning her academic skills, building a curriculum around women’s issues and studied some of the problems facing women in college.

“Through the study, we coined the phrase ‘effortless perfection’ because this was what these girls felt that these girls had to portray. They had to be intelligent, athletic, social — they felt they had to be well-rounded — and not show any stress or strain in doing so.”

Johnson says what emerged from effortless perfection often was substance abuse and eating disorders.

While at Duke, she also was part of developing a program aimed at athletes and alcoholism, which was a trial by fire. A year before the Duke lacrosse controversy, Johnson worked with players in an effort to dispel myths about drinking.

“They were just obnoxious and disrespectful,” Johnson recalls. “My two colleagues were guys and urged me not to be part of the classes.”

Life had become difficult in Durham after Georgia’s birth. Johnson was alone with two babies, two dogs, a full-time job and nobody helping her.

To be back near Stewart, as well as the coast, Johnson moved to Charleston in April 2005 and took a job at Charleston Southern University, where she taught until the spring of 2008. Then she started a private business, Lowcountry Wellness Associates, while teaching as an adjunct at The Citadel and teaching online course with Kaplan University.

“I was piecing everything together and trying to survive. Then this job opportunity (at MUSC) came along,” says Johnson, seeing that the position was made for her.

“When I interviewed for the job, I said this is MUSC. ... We could really put ourselves on the map in terms of wellness,” says Johnson, who was hired in September 2010.

After Johnson met Greenberg and shared her vision, “everything changed.” She started the ball rolling by working closely with the South Carolina Hospital Association and its Working Well project, which is funded by the deep-pocketed Duke Endowment.

Working Well gave Johnson a template, a plan of attack, for improving nutrition, encouraging activity and tackling tobacco use. From there, Johnson has made connections and branched out quickly, often saying yes more than no.

Still, changing what’s possible in lifestyles isn’t easy.

“It’s always a battle. Sometimes you get beat down. It shouldn’t be this hard,” says Johnson. “Regardless, it’s the right thing to do.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or