Feb. 7, 2024, David Mitchell — Kiersten Kelly, M.D., wasn’t one of those kids who proclaimed themselves a future doctor in elementary school and never wavered on a career path.
One of her early (and steadfast) passions was for words. She won a national Scholastic Art and Writing Award in fifth grade and more recently served as an editor for the Journal of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine as a medical student.
“Sometimes I process things through writing and creativity,” she said. “Writing has always been a big part of my life.”
But Kelly didn’t pursue that love as a profession, instead finding another source of inspiration in her family.
“My grandfather was a family physician and my uncle is a pediatric ICU doctor,” said Kelly, who shadowed her uncle as an undergraduate. “I always saw them as having very meaningful lives because of the patient stories that they would share. In medicine, your effects on the community and the patient population you serve feels very tangible, and that was something I was trying to pursue when I decided to go into medicine.”
Kelly, who studied neuroscience and played volleyball at Colorado College, considered specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation before ultimately choosing family medicine for its continuity and broad scope, including women’s health.
However, her intern year at Dignity Health Family Medicine Residency in Sacramento, Calif., was not what she expected. Kelly worked in an intensive care unit for five months of the COVID-19 pandemic. She lost one of her medical school classmates to suicide during the pandemic and struggled with her own depression.
In the midst of what she termed “an incapacitating darkness,” she considered quitting or transferring. A more experienced physician suggested Kelly would not survive unless she could find a way to “care less.”
Instead, she leaned into her old passion and found her voice, serving as the resident member of American Family Physician’s Editorial Board during her second year. She also represented Dignity Health’s rural residency program between her first and second years at the AAFP’s National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students in Kansas City, Mo. Kelly said those two experiences were turning points in her training.
“Those connections to the bigger community of family medicine helped pull me through the feelings of darkness from my intern year,” she said. “Seeing that there are a lot of amazing people around the country who are doing wonderful things within family medicine and advocating for their patients restored my energy.”
Kelly had her first piece, a blog post about her program’s clinic for survivors of human trafficking, published by AFP in November.
“Very early on, from our intern orientation, we’re geared toward trauma-informed care,” she said. “Human trafficking is pervasive in our community and communities across the country. My residency program has been doing a lot of really good work. It’s definitely meaningful to take some of that work and then showcase it on the community blog to say this is the gold standard model of how to care for this patient population.”
Kelly said working with AFP Editor-in-Chief Sumi Sexton, M.D., FAAFP, an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine, was “an amazing experience.”
“She’s passionate about teaching,” Kelly said. “Incorporating students and residents and having a fellowship position keeps the journal relevant to newer graduates. Being involved with the AFP journal really allowed me to see what an amazing resource that is. It helped me become more autonomous, a better physician and a better teacher to both my patients and the residents who came after me.”
Kelly is serving as one of her program’s co-chief this year and is participating in the AAFP’s Chief Resident Development Program. The year-long program includes leadership coaching, an online community, a three-day spring workshop in Kansas City, Mo., as well as fall workshops held in conjunction with the Family Medicine Experience.
Kelly praised the faculty of the chiefs program, including family physicians Mark Greenawald, M.D., FAAFP; Leon McCrea, M.D., M.P.H., FAAFP; and Stacy Potts, M.D., M.Ed., FAAFP, for their passion and experience. She also benefited from the small subgroup of chiefs she was paired with.
“The most valuable part of that conference is that you’re sitting at a table with seven strangers,” she said, “but over the course of three days you really start building relationships with them. You are able to say, ‘This is what’s happening at my program and these are the things that I would like to change, but I’m not sure how.’ And then someone will say, ‘Oh, this is what we do.’ And then you also have peers that you’re able to talk to throughout the year. That’s helpful because as chief you are in somewhat of a lonely position where you’re not ‘just’ a resident, but you’re not faculty, either.”
Kelly, who grew up in a small California mountain town near Lake Tahoe, plans to stay at Dignity Health after graduation for an obstetrics fellowship. Beyond that, she sees herself in rural practice, a family medicine residency or both.
“I’m fine with both of those settings,” she said. “In medical school I was in the rural program, and I think that’s really when I fell in love with family medicine and saw how family medicine can do so much in smaller towns where you’re taking care of the community. There’s such a need for women’s health and obstetrics care in those areas, too.”
Kelly was one of 12 residents honored with the AAFP Award for Excellence in Graduate Medical Education in October 2023 during the Family Medicine Experience in Chicago. Applications for the 2024 awards are open through May 19. Honorees will receive a $2,500 scholarship, hotel accommodations, airfare and registration for the 2024 Family Medicine Experience, Sept. 24-28 in Phoenix.