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Second-generation physician, Dr. Peggy Johnson, shares experiences and memories

Published in Medical Professionals

January 28 will be the last day in clinic for Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Johnson. Dr. Johnson will retire, ending more than 70 years of care in the region by members of the Hinderaker family.

Dr. Johnson grew up in Willmar where her father, Dr. Harris Hinderaker, was a family physician. He practiced in Bird Island for nine years (1950-1959) before moving to Willmar to assist with a burgeoning need for obstetrical care in a growing community. Here he practiced for 27 years, from 1959 until his retirement in 1986.

In January 1971, Dr. Hinderaker was one of the founding physicians of Willmar Medical Center, formed with the merger of Lakeland Medical Center and Willmar Clinic.

As a young college student home for the summer, Dr. Johnson, then Peggy Hinderaker, worked to 'pilot' the information desk at the brand-new Willmar Medical Center. She also served as a volunteer 'candy striper' at Rice Memorial Hospital and an employee (aide) at Northside Nursing Home.

A Career in Medicine

"Both my Dad and I started undergraduate school with intentions of going into careers other than medicine," recalls Johnson. "My Dad graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls with a chemistry degree and became a chemist. He served in WWII as an 'aerologist' (forerunner of being a meteorologist) and after the war, he used the GI Bill to attend medical school."

Dr. Peggy Johnson graduated from St. Olaf as an orchestra member with a degree in biology and an English minor, with the intention of teaching or going into journalism. "I had the opportunity to switch my career focus midway through college because of the passage of Title IX," she said.

The passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act in 1972 prevented federally funded educational institutions from discriminating based on gender. Before 1972, only about 10 percent of medical students in the U.S. were women. Within two years of Title IX's passage, the proportion of women entering U.S. medical schools jumped to 22.4 percent. As of 2019, women comprise 50.5% of all medical school students.

"I was a biology teaching assistant at St. Olaf in the anatomy lab," recalls Johnson. "My professor and mentor, Dr. Madsen, encouraged me to consider medical school; noting I had the qualities to succeed as much as the young men in my class. Before the passage of Title IX, that encouragement might not have been as forthcoming. I entered University of MN-Duluth School of Medicine in 1973. Incidentally, I had never met a woman physician until I enrolled in medical school."

A Role Model for the Future

Despite serving a busy obstetrics practice, Dr. Harris Hinderaker was always an engaged parent to his four children. "We saw our Dad was passionate about the care he provided for his patients and the relationships he sustained with his colleagues," shares Johnson. "I knew the career demands and rewards from seeing my father 'in action.' He always remained neutral with us four children, asking us to find our own life paths and use our talents wisely. What a fantastic role model he was for me."

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In 1975-76, Dr. Johnson had the opportunity to participate in the U of M Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP), a nine-month, community-based experience for third-year medical students. "My Dad served as the very first RPAP preceptor in Willmar in 1971," said Johnson. "A few years later, I was a RPAP student with my Dad and Dr. Phil Iverslie as my family medicine preceptors."

Returning to Willmar

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After graduating from medical school and a three-year residency in family medicine, Dr. Johnson practiced in the twin cities for 8 years before making the decision to return to her hometown. "Moving to Willmar in 1988 was as much about family as it was about career," said Johnson. "I have cherished the opportunity of raising my son near his grandparents and aunt and uncles."

Fond memories of her RPAP year and knowledge of the mission of the 1971 "founders of ACMC" in serving their communities, helped solidify her decision to return home.

A Balancing Act

In Willmar, Dr. Johnson practiced family medicine from 1988 - 2004. She was the first full-time female member of the department of family medicine at ACMC. During this time, she started a group called the 'hen medics,' a support for other women physicians as they entered the profession in the Willmar area.

In 1988 at her first Rice Hospital staff meeting, she was voted in as vice chief of staff. "As a mom of a young child, I had to be at staff meetings early, before the pre-school was open," said Johnson. "So, I would often tote my three-year old son Peter to the hospital meetings with me."

Before Rice Memorial Hospital hired dedicated emergency room physicians, the primary care physicians would take turns 'manning the ER,' she recollects. After one particularly grueling 24-hour stint in the ER, she received a call from the head of neonatology at the University of Minnesota thanking Dr. Johnson for her work 'in the trenches' that night. She had helped to stabilize and care for a patient before transferring to the U of M for HELLP syndrome, a serious complication of blood pressure in pregnancy. "Little did he know that I was also attending to someone with an acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) at the same time," says Johnson. "It was a juggling act where the staff and I kept all the balls in the air and all the patients survived."

Transition to Bariatric Medicine

After delivering two generations of newborns and serving many in the field of women's health, Dr. Johnson felt ready to take on a new challenge. In early 2004 ACMC's President and Board asked her to consider a position in bariatric medicine.

Dr. Johnson studied bariatric medicine as a subset/second career to bring programming to the region that promoted enhanced care for those with obesity/overweight conditions. She has served patients in the Bariatrics & Weight Control Center for the past sixteen years.

"Motivational interviewing has been my forte in assisting many patients achieve progress in taking their intentions to action for improving their health," said Johnson. "I have benefitted from state-of-the-art programming, staff and equipment in our department. Helping some individuals lose and sustain their losses of more than 100 pounds by either medical or surgical means restores my faith in the process."

Advances through the years

Throughout her nearly four decades in medicine, Dr. Johnson has seen many changes. "Technology has been the biggest advancement," explains Johnson. "I began my career using paper charts and handwriting patient notes. We've innovated to the point where we're now utilizing virtual medicine to see patients."

Within the field of bariatric medicine, she has also seen many improvements. "From educated guessing about reasons for a person's weight gain, to now having indirect calorimeters that measure resting metabolic rates, there are many examples of progress over the years."

She recalls stories about her father trying to treat individuals during the polio epidemics of the 1940's/1950's, and would list immunizations as one of the biggest advances in medicine "I have great respect for the global impact of vaccine research and application," says Johnson. "This is certainly playing out now in our current world health crisis."

Outside of Work

Growing up the Hinderaker family enjoyed raising and riding Appaloosa horses. In fact, her father started the Glacial Ridge Appaloosa Club in the context of their family hobby. At one point their family had 20 horses. Today, they still have two horses on the family ranch, where she enjoys helping her sister.

"I enjoy the small 'pod' of family that is my mother and sister and family dog," says Johnson. "I enjoy participating in virtual book club, virtual long-distance board games with my son and his wife at the University of Kansas, and I look forward to the day when I can travel with friends again."

A New Chapter


When Dr. Harris Hinderaker neared the end of his life in 2016, he reflected on how he was able to use his talents during his lifetime. His daughter and colleague, Dr. Peggy Johnson, hopes that she has done the same.

A patient of Dr. Johnson's once shared that she is, "compassionate, knowledgeable, truly cares about her patients, and is a good listener and teacher."

After 16 years in family medicine and 16 years in bariatric medicine, Dr. Johnson knew it was time to start a new chapter and she announced her retirement.

"I will miss the privilege of deeply knowing and caring for my patients," said Johnson. "And I will miss the honor of interacting with my colleagues in our mission to serve those in our communities to the best of our abilities.

"We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Now it's my time to stand aside and promote the next generation of health care."