Having the Heart to Make Change

Pamela Garmon Johnson helps others with her high-ranking position for the American Heart Association -- and other roles.
Written by: 
Natasha Drake
Pamela Garmon Johnson
Pamela Garmon Johnson ('91)

Growing up in a rural East Texas town, Pamela Garmon Johnson ('91) witnessed many of her relatives battle health issues and saw what they went through from the patient perspective.

"On my mother's side of the family, almost everyone had hypertension and diabetes. Many lost limbs, their eyesight," she says. "I watched them suffer. We would go visit them in the hospital. There was no support group. There was no one to help, no one to help them navigate it at all. That is my lived experience."

Now, as one of the top leaders at one of the biggest names in the health care industry, she understands what must be done to help ease some of the suffering from the patient's experience. Others are taking notice of her influential work. The CIO Views website named Johnson one of the 10 Most Influential Black Corporate Women to Watch in 2023.

"I'm an advocate, I fight for the voiceless," says Johnson, who serves as vice president of health equity and national partnerships at the American Heart Association's national office in Dallas. "Many who have power are making the decisions when they have no frame of reference or lived experience."

She uses her family's experience to make decisions that will positively impact those in need. Johnson is a dot-connector and a visionary innovator who can see the big picture as well as the smaller elements within. She developed and refined this attention to detail during her previous roles in accounting.

Johnson earned her bachelor's degree in accounting from UNT, which she chose to stay close to home and because UNT had the strongest accounting program in the area.

Johnson then applied to be an accountant for the American Heart Association. After weighing several job options at the time, she chose the AHA because of her own family's history with heart disease.

She later found a calling in marketing and began working as a project coordinator within the organization. Johnson even went back to school, graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1998 with her M.B.A. with an emphasis in marketing.

This opened the doors that ultimately paved the path to her current position. A self-titled "healthpreneur," Johnson focuses on shining a spotlight on the widening health disparities among the American population. She doesn't want anyone left behind and believes that "access and equity" should be available to all.

As a leader and active member of The Links Inc., Jack and Jill of America, Inc. and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, she listens to what people really need, not just what she wants to hear. Sometimes, what they need is not what is easiest to give, but Johnson acts and works to ensure that they receive the care they require. Johnson is also a member of the Corewell Health Board and of two high school boards in Chicago, the ChiArts Board and Urban Prep Board.

The passion she has for helping others can be seen among her most memorable projects such as catalyzing the AHA's EmPOWERED to Service Business Accelerator and founding the You Are the Power Concert and Awards that were held in New York City's Apollo Theatre from 2007 to 2009. Johnson is the executive director for the AHA's National Hypertension Control Initiative, which is the organization's largest government grant in its history with its $121 million of funding and is one of its 10 commitments to health equity.

While she handles huge projects like these, Johnson also makes it a point to meet with every intern on her team. She recognizes their efforts, as they contribute to the detailed elements that help make up the big picture. Several previous interns still keep in touch with her so she gets to see their journey continue.

When asked how she prioritizes her own health, Johnson says, "You have to create the space for yourself, find quiet time alone to recharge and focus on the things that are most important. I am the CEO of my health."