You could count on Roger H. Johnson to be late for dinner. It wasn’t that Johnson, an ophthalmologist, was unreliable. Quite the contrary. He just couldn’t bear not to see his patients, if they needed help. His home number was listed in the phone book, so they could reach him anytime, day or night.
“He never said ‘no’ to a patient,” says his widow, Angie Karalis Johnson. “If they needed more time, he’d make the time. He’d even take the patient’s phone number and call them at the end of the day.”
Karalis Johnson was the office manager and played a key role in her husband’s ophthalmology practice, one of the most popular in Seattle. It was also one of the busiest: it was the primary referral center for children’s vision disorders and eye diseases in the Northwest.
The practice was distinguished in another way: it never took payment for surgeries and other care performed at Seattle Children’s, giving insurance benefits back to the hospital. The Johnsons were mindful of all their patients’ circumstances. No one ever lacked for wonderful care because of finances.
Roger Johnson was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, trained at the Mayo Clinic. Charmed by Seattle’s gentle weather, he set up his practice and came to serve as a clinical professor on the University of Washington faculty; he was also a mentor and an eye researcher. Johnson established the eye clinic at Seattle Children’s and volunteered his time to serve as chief of service for more than 40 years. In 1998, by unanimous vote of the ophthalmology faculty, Johnson was given the title of emeritus clinical professor in recognition of his academic achievements and his untiring service — an honor that has been bestowed on very few people in the department’s history.
Angie Karalis Johnson was a Seattle native. And, from a young age, she was frugal and oriented to investing for the long term — just like her mother. “My mother and I would take the bus downtown to go to the bank when I was a kid,” Karalis Johnson recalls. “My mother liked to talk to the manager about her savings.” As a teenager, Karalis Johnson began to take a lively interest in investments. Between her mother and the listings in the newspaper, she says, “I learned how to invest and save money.”
Angie and Roger were generous — and always interested in improving the health of eye patients. Approximately 34 years ago, they endowed the Roger Johnson Lectureship at Seattle Children’s, which brings top pediatric ophthalmologists to Seattle and has become one of the most prestigious visiting lectureships in the specialty. Later, in 2001, they endowed the Roger H. Johnson Award for Macular Degeneration, a cash prize that is given to the scientist who has made the most significant contribution to the understanding or treatment of age-related macular degeneration.
In October, Karalis Johnson made an additional gift, the investment of a lifetime: the creation of the Roger H. and Angie Karalis Johnson Retina Center at UW Medicine. She had given the gift a great deal of thought; in fact, she first had the idea when she worked with patients at the clinic.
“If people are hurting, it affects me,” she says. And the patients she’d seen with macular degeneration, often older people, had touched her deeply. “Quality of life is so important. They’re losing a lot of life because they can’t see,” she says.
Macular degeneration is a debilitating condition that affects the macula, a region in the retina responsible for sharp, central vision. People who suffer from it often lose sight in the very center of the eye. According to the National Eye Institute, more than 5.44 million people in the U.S. are projected to have age-related macular degeneration by 2050.
With the new Karalis Johnson Retina Center, UW Medicine will be better able to help patients with macular degeneration and other retinal diseases. Russell Van Gelder, M.D., Ph.D., the director of the UW Medicine Eye Institute, has big plans for the center. A significant portion of the gift is earmarked to purchase sophisticated equipment and technology. The rest will give Van Gelder and his colleagues the freedom to pursue initiatives in research and care related to the cure of macular degeneration and the treatment of other retinal diseases.
“Angie’s gift is transformative,” says Van Gelder. “Thanks to her generosity, we will have a beautiful new facility to care for patients with macular degeneration and other retinal diseases, filled with state-of-the-art research equipment and some of the nation’s best researchers. I anticipate many advances — helping millions of people — will flow from Angie’s remarkable gift. She has a great heart!”
This gift is a family legacy. Although Roger Johnson died in 2007, and Angie’s mother and father before that, they — Karalis Johnson’s loving parents and the doctor she married and worked alongside — are very much present in the creation of the Roger H. and Angie Karalis Johnson Retina Center. Today, Karalis Johnson is looking forward to the day the new center — located in Seattle’s South Lake Union area — opens. That opening is slated for early 2019.
“I’ve been enjoying watching the building go up,” she says. “I can’t wait to see those eye patients walk in and know that the center can give them hope.” The dream for the Karalis Johnson Retina Center to become the world’s leading center for the cure and treatment of macular degeneration and other retinal diseases is coming ever closer to reality.