Sisters in Medicine
Melissa Johns Amberger welcomes her sibling, Kathryn Johns, into the profession
By Kathy Ursprung
Two sisters from The Dalles have more in common now than their DNA. They are part of a family business—the practice of medicine.
In May, surgical resident Dr. Melissa Johns Amberger welcomed her younger sister, Dr. Kathryn (Katie) Johns, into the medical profession by “hooding” her at her graduation from the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford campus.
The two sisters attended public school in The Dalles, Melissa graduating in 2003 from The Dalles High School and Katie graduating in 2005 from the same school, briefly renamed The Dalles Wahtonka High School. They are the daughters of Dan and Michele Spatz of The Dalles.
A hooding ceremony, along with the Hippocratic Oath, symbolizes the completion of a doctorate and admittance into the medical profession. Hooding is done by a fellow doctor— usually a faculty member—but also can be done by family members in medicine.
“It was both incredibly emotional and surreal to have my sister bestow that honor upon me and welcome me into my new professional community,” Katie says.
Katie, 30, is a resident specializing in emergency medicine at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Chicago.
Melissa, 32, who graduated in 2013 from Western University of the Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, California, is a fourth-year general surgery resident at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, New York. In June, she became chief surgical resident at St. Barnabas.
Both sisters were exposed to medicine as a career at a young age through their mother’s work as a medical librarian. A job as a patient transporter at Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles during high school cemented the deal for Melissa.
“I fell in love with the operating room,” Melissa says. Through college and medical school, Melissa was urged to keep an open mind. Rotating through clinical clerkships in various specialties, she briefly considered obstetrics and gynecology. But as a young woman of childbearing age, she felt she had too much in common with her potential patients. “I wasn’t going to be able to stay rational at the times when my patients needed me most,” Melissa says.
Surgical practice has a more diverse clientele. “Even in what I do now, the program is very trauma-heavy, fast-paced,” Melissa says. “You have to make quick decisions. I still have cases I struggle with, and they are always women my age.” However, she says she is happy she went into surgery.
Katie remembers playing with castoff medical equipment at the MCMC day care. By the time she reached elementary school, she wanted to be a doctor. In high school, she considered teaching. By the end of high school, she had settled on becoming a dietitian. “I worked as a dietitian in a hospital for two years, but medicine was in the back of my mind,” Katie says. She enjoyed nutrition, but felt something was missing. “I wished I was more involved with the rest of what’s going on with my patient,” she says. Medical school became the clear choice.
Katie now practices at one of the busiest level I trauma centers in Illinois and says she loves what she is doing. “I was super lucky,” Katie says. “I got my first choice. I wanted the crazy. Some of it comes from playing athletics through college. It’s a super intense, active sort of day. It was the right fit.”
Melissa also gets her fair share of emergency cases. “I have a reputation for being a black cloud,” she says. “It’s always raining or thunder storming on my call. During 24-hour shifts, I can count on both hands when I went all night without having to go to the operating room.” On typical call days, Melissa gets up around 4:45 a.m. for coffee and a shower, then reviews electronic medical records on overnight activity, labs and other details.
As chief resident, she is assigned to cover one of three teams. She also oversees the junior residents and interns working under her. “The last thing is if there is a big case in the operating room, a colon resection or cancer, I look up their work-up,” she says. “It’s not uncommon for a lab to get lost. I make sure it’s all done. They teach us to be very vigilant.”
Melissa gets updates on patients throughout the day, reviewing treatment plans, conducting consultations, and handling a variety of details, then going through the entire patient list before the rest of the team leaves, somewhere between 4:30 and 6 p.m. She then manages emergencies overnight, and usually goes to the surgical intensive care unit to help the junior resident there. Melissa signs out to the next team at 6:30 a.m. and usually returns home around 10 a.m.
Katie’s typical day starts at 4 a.m. with breakfast, followed by a 40-minute commute. She arrives at 5:30 a.m. for her 6 a.m. shift so she has time to do sign-out with the departing team. “The place is crazy,” she says. “Our emergency department is always very busy.” Even so, it has rhythms that include a morning rush, a lull between 10 a.m. and noon that serves as catch-up time, then a peak around 4 or 5 p.m., followed by a steady flow into the evening.
Katie works a 10-hour shift, then stays another hour or more to finish charting. While Katie has years to go in her residency, she is thinking about her future, too. She says her ideal practice would be a mix of 75 percent emergency and 25 percent sports medicine.
Melissa, on the other hand, is nearing decision time. One thing she knows is that she doesn’t want to live in New York City. She may live in the city that never sleeps, but as a cash and time-strapped resident, she rarely gets to enjoy it. She and her husband want to live somewhere in the northern half of the country.
Wherever she ends up, she will be aware of the privileges of medical practice. “I have seen patients at many of their worst moments in life,” she says, from telling a mother her child is dead, to comforting patients and their families after delivering a terminal diagnosis. She has also watched patients walk from the hospital, days after believing their wounds or illness would be fatal.
“I have witnessed the miracle of the human body and its capacity to heal, and the miracle of the human spirit to remain resilient in the face of sometimes insurmountable obstacles,” Melissa says.
“The joy of these miracles is why I love what I do, to see people in a way so few usually do.”