Ever since watching NOVA on PBS as a 12-year-old who adored math and science, Dr. Karen Kennedy knew she wanted to help people through a career in medicine. But she didn't want to "just be a doctor." She wanted to reach those most vulnerable ... those who don't think they've got a voice or choice.
"I was brought up in a middle-class family. I don't have any sob stories," Dr. Kennedy explained. "We tend to blame people for where they are. But through experiences and watching TV while growing up, I learned about others and realized their circumstances weren't always their fault."
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, with family roots in Jamaica, Dr. Kennedy graduated from Upstate Medical University in Syracuse and eventually made her way to West Michigan 11 years ago. Today, as a Regional Medical Director for Mercy Health Physician Partners, Dr. Kennedy is able to connect with some of the area's most underserved populations, while placing a steadfast focus on building authentic relationships and trust.
"Sometimes it's as simple as saying someone's name correctly or learning to speak a little bit of someone's language," said Dr. Kennedy, a self-professed people person. "Mercy Health allows its colleagues and staff to really serve its patients, not just medically but spiritually, community wise and otherwise."
Dr. Kennedy recalled a time when she saw a patient who couldn't figure out why her sugar level was out of control, only to eventually learn the woman was storing her insulin on a cold window sill, since she didn't own a refrigerator to properly cool the medication.
"We're supposed to have the answers—we've got the white coats and everything—and we miss something like that? Those are the moments that make me feel like I'm where I'm supposed to be because I learn as much from my patients as perhaps they've learned from me—if not more. And that's awesome."
When reflecting on events like the Tuskegee Syphilis Studies and the story of Henrietta Lacks, Dr. Kennedy acknowledges there's distrust in the medical system from the Black and African American community. She actively uses some of her own experiences—as both a woman of color and a doctor—to try and build back trust in things like the COVID-19 and influenza vaccines.
"I feel a responsibility and want to tell patients why the vaccine works," said Dr. Kennedy, who got her first COVID-19 shot in March 2021. "Thereafter, I encouraged my family and others in the community to do the same."
As part of her efforts, Dr. Kennedy appeared in a variety of American Heart Association (AHA) PSA videos shown throughout the community encouraging people to get their shot.
"Knowing the videos were shown in churches was heartening," she said. "Because we could be undergoing a zombie apocalypse, and Black people are still gonna be in church!"
Dr. Kennedy advises other women who want to pursue a career in medicine to do it because your passion is strong—not because of the money.
"Utilize any opportunity you have to learn a little bit more about how to connect to patients beyond the academic side of things," she recommended. "And remember, any bad experiences you have are actually good experiences, because now you know what you don't want to do as a doctor."
Community involvement has always been of significant importance to Dr. Kennedy, whether that meant writing for and being named a "2014 History Maker" in The Grand Rapids Times, or attending meetings and speaking at presentations with the Grand Rapids African American Health Institute.
Knowing that cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women and disproportionately impacts Black and Hispanic women, Dr. Kennedy is particularly passionate about supporting AHA and their Go Red for Women initiative. She currently serves as local board member, is active with AHA's Have Faith in Heart Initiative and became involved initially by running one of the organization's marathons in Kona, Hawaii in 2003, in honor of a patient.
"I really enjoyed learning about those around me who were also running and was surprised that many of them were in their 20s and 30s. They were running because they had strokes already," said Dr. Kennedy, who often attends and speaks at various AHA events. "I was expecting to hear that from people in their 70s and 80s, but to this day, it shocks me. I remain very impressed with the number of people the American Heart Association touches and the funds they've raised to help people—especially women, who suffer very much with cardiovascular disease."
Often found being active with her husband, Phil, Dr. Kennedy enjoys exercising, walking outdoors, biking and doing Pilates, which she says has helped lengthen the curvature in her spine caused by scoliosis at 15. Dr. Kennedy also describes herself as more introverted than she seems, and is a fan of a wide variety of different music genres—from the blues and Spanish music to Led Zeppelin, her favorite rock band.
"A lot of times when people look at a Black woman, they assume she's only into hip-hop or whatever," Dr. Kennedy said. "I do like that kind of music, but I really enjoy—and was brought up on—classical music. I'm also a classically trained pianist."
Though she's quick to offer a disclaimer: "Please, for the love of God don't ask me to play anything now, as I haven't played in many years!"
Piano pro or not, Dr. Kennedy's unwavering dedication, passion and devotion to the people of West Michigan radiates throughout the community—often through unseen, yet powerful and lasting actions.
DR. KENNEDY'S TIPS FOR PRIORITIZING HEART HEALTH
- Prioritize and make time for caring for yourself and your own needs.
- Seek out factual, nonpolitical, scientific information from trusted organizations, including the American Heart Association.
- Implement a healthy diet and exercise routine.
- Talk with your primary care provider about heart disease and stroke, and know your family history.
- Get between 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
- Rest! Take that relaxing vacation.
Support the American Heart Association by attending the Go Red for Women Luncheon on June 9, 2022. Celebrate the initiative's unique history and success in helping prevent nearly 700,000 deaths. Learn more at heart.org/grandrapidsgored.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.