Khaliah Johnson, like so many of our NMF Scholars, came to medicine with the passion to serve the underserved.  But she could not have imagined where that passion that would lead her.  Today Khaliah is a pediatrician who runs the pediatric palliative care program at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA), one of the nation’s premier children’s hospitals.

Khaliah came to CHOA with a commitment “to figure out how we can support children who have complex high-level medical needs”—children in all circumstances, and walks of life, in Atlanta and also in outlying rural areas. This population, Khaliah told us, includes many children from low-income families that struggle with housing and survival issues, as well as the terrifying burdens of medical care. More than 70% of all children in Georgia qualify for Medicaid.

 “I wanted to serve the underserved,” Khaliah says, “and I don’t think you can find a population much more exemplary and underserved than pediatric palliative care kids. “

(And we must add: We cannot think of a more exemplary life’s work than alleviating the suffering of children with life-limiting illnesses, and their families.)

National Medical Fellowships (NMF) is proud to have had a part in supporting Khaliah in her education and life work, which has also included commitments to global health and community-based healthcare, and to advocacy on behalf of the patients and communities she serves.

Khaliah’s story – early inspiration, and service

Khaliah grew up in Brooklyn, New York.  She attended a “unique” high school that allowed her to pursue a curriculum for honors placement and college, along with special vocational training; and in the vocational track she was drawn to practical nursing.  One of her nursing instructors inspired her with stories of her missionary work as a pediatric nurse in Africa; and this, along with Khaliah’s family values that celebrated connection to the African diaspora, inspired Khaliah to study and serve in Kenya, and to declare a pre-med major (at Cornell University).  To this day Khaliah maintains a close relationship of service with the Kenyan community she worked with as an undergraduate.

The impact of a mentor: Dr. Richard Payne, NMF Alumnus

Khaliah graduated from Cornell uncertain of how she would pursue her goals.  Although she was poised to apply to medical school, she had broad interests in nursing, public health, and nutrition, and felt she needed a gap year to sort things out.  So she went looking for an interim job–and “up pops this advertisement. .   . for a research assistant for a physician who was running the palliative care service at Memorial Sloan Kettering.”

That physician was Dr. Richard Payne, an NMF Alumnus, an internationally-known palliative care specialist and neuro-oncologist.  Dr. Payne would be a career mentor to Khaliah, at every step in her journey.  It was Dr. Payne who told Khaliah that she could realize her potential and her dreams with a medical degree–”So please just do the application!”   Dr. Payne put her in touch with a colleague at a Stanford University School of Medicine, who mentored her through the application process, and welcomed her to medical school.

The GE-NMF Global Health Fellows Program

As a medical student, Khaliah participated in the GE-NMF Global Health Scholars Program. “This was a wonderful way to affirm my passions around global health and community-based healthcare—and serving the underserved. Being in an intensive service environment, in Ghana – in both rural and urban settings was “phenomenal,” Khaliah says. 

 What Khaliah learned on two GE-NMF Global Health Fellowships continues to support her in the work she does today. “There are some places within our state that we have been to visit as a team, that are not all that different, interestingly, from some of what I saw in Sub Sahara Africa and Ghana.  “I carry those lessons with me, and continue to remain thoughtful about the needs of all patients, and the importance of us as physicians, and particularly physicians of color who come from underrepresented backgrounds.  

“An amazing story about the importance of mentorship”

When Khaliah decided to apply for a residency in pediatrics, her mentor, Dr. Payne, put her in touch with a colleague at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, who in turn mentored her through residency at Hopkins, and to a career in palliative care.  Khaliah’s postgraduate training included a Fellowship in Hospice and Palliative Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

For Khaliah there are no words to describe the impact of Dr. Payne on her life. “It’s just an amazing story of the importance of mentorship and connection–and how this field–that I knew nothing about when I was an undergrad–was what I ended up in.”    

“And what I’d like to share, briefly, is that palliative is not just about end-of-life care . . . (and certainly that is true in pediatrics). It is really a holistic discipline that looks at how we can support children who have complex, life-threatening medical illness to live well, for as long as they may have to live.  . So it’s about giving life to those who are in many ways the most vulnerable and underserved.”

 Dr. Payne died in January of 2019; and it just overwhelms Khaliah to think of his legacy and the person he was – how many people he mentored, and the patients they will take care of and the people they will train. . .and the patients that that those people will take care of. . . This is an ongoing legacy, and Khaliah is part of that.

The future – pushing the envelope

Today Khaliah is an Attending Physician in pediatric palliative care, interim director of the division of pediatric palliative care at CHOA, and also has academic appointments at Emory School of Medicine.  She spends part of her clinical time in the pediatric HIV clinic at Grady Medical Center.  She is an advocate for community-based palliative care services and serves on numerous national, regional and state committees that address the palliative care needs of children and families.   She remains engaged with global health work and has launched a non-profit partnership with the clinic in Kenya she first visited as an undergraduate 20 years ago (https://www.wearewendo.com).  So that circles back to the role of NMF, and the reminder that our careers in medicine are so rich.  And we’re so privileged to have the opportunity to re-evaluate our work and continue to push the envelope.

 For Khaliah, pushing the envelope means standing up as a servant leader and as a healthcare advocate domestically and internationally.  Among her many advocacy roles, Khaliah serves as a Council Member of the (Georgia) Governor’s Advisory Council on Palliative Care.  At NMF, Khaliah serves as a member of the NMF Committee on Alumni Affairs, which supports NMF Alumni in their ongoing efforts to increase opportunities for the next generation of healthcare leaders.