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A unique and special relationship between a UAB physician and his patient culminates in a large gift that will be around for generations to come.

""There are likely many good relationships between doctors and patients at UAB—but few are like the one between pulmonologist Jim Johnson, M.D., and Merritt Pizitz, his patient of 11 years.

Pizitz, a prominent Birmingham businessman, recently made a planned gift to establish an endowed professorship in Johnson’s name in pulmonology. Pizitz said he moved his medical care to UAB more than a dozen years ago and has found the doctors, nurses, clinicians and other support staff to be highly trained, warm and helpful.

“I have lived in Birmingham for over 80 years, and I think I know Birmingham,” Pizitz said. “When I was young, the lights in the night sky from the blast furnaces west of the city, the horrible 1960s and the city as we see it today. One of the most exciting things during this period was the growth of UAB in Birmingham, located right downtown, with over 20,000 students, 23,000 professional associates and over 1,500 active physicians. Recently, I decided that I wanted to make a donation to the UAB medical group, but I did not want it to get lost in the [general] funding drive. Therefore, I looked for a way to make a donation that would have some identity.”

After speaking with Megann Bates Cain, chief development officer for the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine, Pizitz learned that he could direct his gift to a certain department or honor a specific individual.

Dr. Jim Johnson and Merritt Pizitz“I immediately knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I told her that I wanted to honor Dr. Jim Johnson and name this endowment the James E. Johnson Endowed Professorship in Pulmonary and Critical Care from the funds that will be available upon my death.”

Pizitz said a few years ago he needed a pulmonary specialist and was directed to Johnson.

“Over the years and after many appointments, I learned what a warm, kind, humble and knowledgeable physician he was,” Pizitz said. “He was only a telephone call away, and emails or texts were usually answered the same day. Dr. Jim Johnson deserves the honor that goes along with the endowed professorship. His doctor/patient relationship mirrors medicine of the past.”

Pizitz said, of all of the doctors he’s seen at UAB, Johnson epitomizes medicine of yesteryear: Johnson gave Pizitz his cell phone number, his email address and was instrumental in getting Pizitz follow up care at the Mayo Clinic for a health issue he faced.

“He was so special,” Pizitz said. “I wanted to honor him for all the things he did for me—for his relationship with me.”

For his part, Johnson said he never expected this and tried—unsuccessfully—to convince Pizitz to put the endowed professorship in Pizitz’s name.

“He wouldn’t hear of it,” Johnson said. “One of his conditions was that it be in my name. It’s a nice thing, a humbling thing—it means that for many years a physician will have my name attached to his or her professorship. I’m humbled and pleased he wanted to do that.”

Johnson, on staff at UAB since 2000, himself is the recipient of an endowed professorship, the first Charles and Alice Hohenberg Professor of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. A graduate of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Johnson completed his residency in internal medicine and a fellowship in pulmonary and critical care at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, and served in the U.S. Army until 2000, including completing a deployment to the Middle East. He retired from the military as a full colonel in 2000 and has been at UAB for 22 years, currently serving as clinical director of the Division of Pulmonary, Allergy and Critical Care Medicine. During his tenure at the university, Johnson has received numerous awards, including the UAB President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching for the School of Medicine. Personally, Johnson has been married for 45 years and has five children—all of whom are either in medicine or have served in the military.

Pizitz called Johnson warm, kind and humble and said he wasn’t the only patient Johnson went above and beyond for.

Jim Johnson“Jim Johnson is a unique individual and has relationships [like ours] with other people, too,” Pizitz said. “When you have 20 minutes to see a patient, you can only do so much. I almost died about five years ago from a lung issue. I was critical. He was in my room probably two to three times with my daughter. That’s not his job, going to visit patients in their rooms. I had another small event happen, and he called from out of town. He’d already found out about it. He called and talked to me and apologized for not being able to see me. He’s just a special man.”

Johnson returns the respect for his patient, recalling that the pair always hit it off, from the very beginning.

“He’s one of these guys that’s larger than life,” Johnson said. “When he walks in the room, you know he’s there. He has a big personality and likes to laugh; he always has a joke and a big smile and is glad to see you. He has my phone numbers—my cell number, my office number—but he doesn’t abuse them. If he needs me, he knows how to reach me.”

Johnson said the professorship in his name will help anchor a talented physician to UAB and make the recipient more likely to stay long term, providing not just salary support but also career enhancement, including taking courses or buying equipment.

“It’s another level of promotion,” he said. “UAB benefits by having that person be better educated and have a salary that is more competitive with other institutions. The benefit is to the individual mainly, but there is a secondary benefit to UAB.”

This gift will make impact for decades, said Mark Dransfield, M.D., director of pulmonary, allergy and critical care medicine at UAB.

""“This new endowment in honor of Dr. Johnson is a terrific recognition of his service to UAB and his patients,” he said. “Jim is well known across the School of Medicine and Hospital for his excellence in teaching and in patient care. He always goes the extra mile to ensure patients are receiving the best care, both in terms of quality and his attention. This endowment will help us retain and reinvest in our faculty for decades to come and knowing that it was named in his honor will encourage future holders to emulate his caring and professionalism.”

Having an endowed professorship named in one’s honor is a rare distinction for a physician, and Johnson was so moved by his patient’s gesture that, when he found out about Pizitz’s gift, he wrote him the kindest letter—by hand, Pizitz pointed out—and mailed it to him.

“He said, ‘There are over 1,000 doctors at UAB, and I bet you not 4 percent will ever receive this honor,’” Pizitz said. “I still have the letter on my desk, and I’m considering framing it for my house. It’s so personal, it almost puts tears in your eyes.”


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