In the Loop

News and views from across Mayo Clinic

March 14, 2019

Local Orthodontist Builds ‘Johnny Cars’ of Hope for Pediatric Heart Patients

By In the Loop

A Facebook post gave John Lawson the idea to build toy cars for children, but his inspiration comes from his friend Dr. Joseph Dearani's pediatric patients at Mayo Clinic.

If John Lawson had his way, the only reason you'd know his name would be because you're sitting in the waiting room of his Orthodontic Health Center practice in Rochester. You'd probably never know — and he'd certainly never openly tell you — that when he's not fixing teeth, he's in his garage, building toy cars for a different patient population — the pediatric patients of Mayo Clinic cardiovascular surgeon Joseph Dearani, M.D.

"I really wanted to be quiet about all of this," Dr. Lawson tells us. "But, oh well." Well, we tend to think stories like this deserve to be told. And for Dr. Lawson, it's a story that began this past summer on — of all places — Facebook. "Mike Rowe has this new show called 'Returning the Favor,' where he highlights people he calls 'Bloody Do-Gooders,'" Dr. Lawson says. "And there was this one episode of an 82-year-old guy in Utah named Alton Thacker who'd built more than 800,000 toy cars for children. And I thought, 'Someday I'd like to do that, too.'"

Someday came sooner than he might have thought. The inspiration from that episode propelled him to track down and reach out to Thacker so he could learn more about what he was doing. "We talked on the phone and he said, 'I'd love to help you,'" Dr. Lawson says. "He sent me templates and he actually made it very easy for me to purchase wheels and screws from him. That's how I got my supplies."

Next came the tools to put those supplies together. "I'd had some power tools already, but I've since added to them — I bought a drill press and others things like that," Dr. Lawson says. And then he got to work, creating the toys he calls 'Johnny Cars,' which he named after his son. "I've probably built around 500 of them since this past summer," Dr. Lawson tells us. "I just enjoy going home at night, cutting cars out, sanding them down, drilling the holes, and doing all of it on my own time."

All for the good of the patients of his good friend, Dr. Dearani. "I've known Joe for a long time," Dr. Lawson says. "I don't know how you couldn't idolize the guy; he saves people's lives every day. And besides that, he's such a nice person. So I thought, 'Maybe I can make something that he can give away to his pediatric patients to help them through the things they're going through in life."

Dr. Dearani tells us that's exactly what Dr. Lawson's Johnny Cars have done. "What John is doing contributes to a patient's care at Mayo Clinic in many ways," Dr. Dearani says. "The patients and their families all get a big kick out of his cars, and we — the doctors, the nurses and the secretaries — all love handing them out because it helps show our patients that we care about them in ways that go beyond their medical problems alone."

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Tags: Cardiovascular Surgery, Community, Dr. Joseph Dearani, pediatrics, Practice story

This is so great! My daughter is a heart patient here in Alberta and she is an avid car lover. Although she cherished the stuffed animal she received, a toy car would be pretty special. Such a selfless thing to do, thank you for your kindness to all these kids!

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