By Ashley Hughes
Becoming a health practitioner wasn’t the first thing Kyle Johnson had in mind for a career.
His first college experience at Hawaii Pacific University was thwarted by a struggle with addiction, leading him to leave and become a flight attendant. The couple of years spent taking to the skies saw Johnson based in cities such as Denver, Detroit and Louisville, Kentucky, but when addiction reared its head again, he was left not knowing what he wanted to do.
Johnson decided to move back to Colorado, where he worked in a restaurant and returned to school at Community College of Denver. At age 30, he was uncertain of his direction.
“I thought attending school in some way, shape or form would be the thing that would get me to wherever it was that I was going in life,” said Johnson, who graduated from Metropolitan State University of Denver this spring as the President’s Award winner.
As someone who grew up watching the TV show “Trauma: Life in the E.R.,” Johnson was always intrigued by the medical field. When he was discussing his options with an advisor at CCD, she steered him to MSU Denver’s Integrative Health Care program – a whole-person approach to medicine that resonated with Johnson.
Johnson then met Emily Matuszewicz, D.C., interim director of the MSU Denver Health Institute, who he says took him under her wing, helped change his way of thinking and supported him in his recovery.
“Before I came to MSU Denver, all I could ask is, ‘Why am I in this place at the age of 30? Why does this keep happening to me? Why can I not stop using drugs?’ And she helped me switch that to be like, ‘What is your why? Why are you here, and what is your purpose?’ And then once I understood that, my life has changed and everything fell into place, and it’s because of her,” Johnson said.
He embarked on a path that he hopes will lead to a career as a nurse practitioner, with his classes giving him the confidence to leave his job as a waiter for work as a Medicare coordinator.
“That opened up the door of understanding that I want to be of service to people and help them in a way that other people may not be able to, specifically with underserved populations,” Johnson said.
AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, Ph.D., associate dean of the College of Professional Studies, has witnessed Johnson’s commitment to this mission and his “fierce dedication to access and opportunity for all communities.”
“His classroom and study-abroad opportunities add a rich array of experiences in other countries, particularly in areas of poverty,” Alejano-Steele said.
Johnson’s time spent volunteering at a clinic in India was especially impactful for him. “Not only did India show me firsthand the gravity of social discrepancies and barriers to care, it allowed me to be a part of the change in providing care to residents of Bhopal that still experience the lingering effects of the city’s devastating 1984 gas disaster,” Johnson said.
His work to support others can also be seen closer to home – at CHEER Colorado, for example, where he helps raise money for local LGBTQ charities. Johnson also helped to establish the Auraria Recovery Community group for those who struggle with addiction.
“It provides a sense of ‘I’m with a group of people that get me, and they understand me,’” Johnson said. “And I’m very open about my recovery because I believe the more I’m open about it and not ashamed, that it opens the door of opportunity for someone else to have a conversation.”
Matuszewicz said she was struck by Johnson’s “boundless enthusiasm” and willingness to share his story with classmates in her Health Career Foundations Course.
“Not only did Kyle share himself with his classmates; his warmth and generosity of spirit invited other students to contribute to our classroom discussion,” she said.
Johnson plans to pursue a master’s degree in nursing at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where the curriculum is specifically focused on population health related to the Pacific Islands – another chance to help the underserved. He says being accepted to graduate school is his proudest educational accomplishment yet.
“I want to be a health practitioner that assists people in breaking down those barriers and be the person that is their access to care,” Johnson said.
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