It all began with a letter. And whether it was fate, destiny, or just plain dumb luck, it ended with Dr. Jeff Johnson finding his way from his boyhood roots in the upper mid-western United States to what would be a new and lasting home in the far-flung western pacific.
At the time, Johnson was a year removed from graduation from the University of Minnesota dental school, and was in the middle of a one-year residency at a large inner city hospital in Chicago.
But the young dentist was looking for more of an adventure to launch his career, “so I applied to many different places all over the world, because I always enjoyed traveling. I looked for different opportunities, some of it was mission-type work in the Caribbean and Africa, and Southeast Asia,” Johnson recalled.
Of the many application letters he sent out, one was for an opening at the University of Guam dental auxiliary training program. The problem was, it no longer existed. “Someone very easily could’ve taken that letter and thrown it in the trash,” he said.
Instead, that someone forwarded the application to the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, which just happened to be looking for help. “They were interested in hiring a dentist to treat handicapped kids,” Johnson explained, “and I had a lot of experience with that in my residency in Chicago.”
His letter was sent to Dr. Gene Sterritt, the director of Public Health’s dental department, who just happened to be headed to Chicago to visit family. It also just happened to be Johnson’s last month of residency, “so we agreed to meet at a coffee shop at a Holiday Inn out on the interstate, and we got along pretty well. I told him I was going to be traveling and biking in Europe for the summer, but after that I would love to come out to Guam. And he agreed to hire me,” Johnson said.
The tall, lanky mid-westerner arrived in October 1984, knowing little about Guam except that it had a role in World War II. “Everybody was so friendly and welcoming right off the bat. You know, the typical thing inviting you to the fiestas. So it was very easy to fall into various social circles here, and it was nice.”
Johnson eventually moved on to work at private clinics, and about 20 years ago partnered with Dr. Rayner Terlaje to open a clinic of their own, Isa Dental. “When I talk to some of my colleagues out in the states, I don’t think they have as good a time treating patients as we do out here. People are very appreciative. They’re very thankful for getting good quality care, and they become your friends. We have many patients who have been with us for more than 20 years. Some of the kids who I saw during my time at the public health dental program 34 years ago are still my patients,” he narrated.
Johnson described his practice as “a life-long relationship, actually,” and there are also some very unique aspects of practicing in this part of the world. “Pugua’s a gold mine for dentists,” he added.
Johnson turned 60 this year, and he and his wife celebrated with a long-planned trip to Africa. They spent a month touring places like Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa. “It was wonderful. We felt so fortunate that we were able to take the time to go. We had a spectacular time, it met our expectations and then some,” he quipped.
He described watching an amazing collection of birds in their natural habitat, and enjoying the magnificent sunsets. “They’re really very spectacular. Every night we saw so many oranges, reds, pinks—all kinds of colors. I would say the sunsets rival ours, and we have pretty good sunsets here.”
Then there were the up-close tours of wild game animals. “It’s exhilarating. These are open vehicles, no doors, no windows, no roof. And the animals will allow you to come right up next to them. You literally drive within five, six feet,” he said.
Johnson learned to appreciate the great outdoors growing up in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. “My father was always a big fisherman…even as a teenager I would go out with buddies on camping, canoeing, and biking trips. We’d go out west and see all the parks. We were doing that when we were 15 and 16,” he recalled.
He continued, “I’ve been a long way from my family back in Minnesota all these years, so my connection to my father was at least once a year we would go on some exotic fishing trip.” They’ve been to the high Arctic, Mexico, Central America, all over the Pacific, and especially to Alaska, his dad’s favorite.
Johnson’s father, being older now, is not physically able go on the trips anymore. “He’s a little bummed out about it…but we still had 30 years worth of trips all over the place,” he said.
He concluded, “Its a way to socialize…just being with family and friends, and just hanging out. And being out on the ocean, or the river, or the lake. Just being in the outdoors. For me it’s always been an enjoyable experience.”
“Its a way to socialize…just being with family and friends, and just hanging out. And being out on the ocean, or the river, or the lake. Just being in the outdoors. For me it’s always been an enjoyable experience.”