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Medical student inspired by mom, focused on north

The call came in before midnight. Emergency transplant. Did she want to shadow the procedure? Of course first-year medical student Christine Kennedy had put in that very request and by 1 a.m.
Kennedy family
This year's UNBC Rising Star Award recipient is Christine Kennedy, left, with her sister Ceylyn Kennedy Barnett and her fiancé Colen Wilson.

The call came in before midnight. Emergency transplant. Did she want to shadow the procedure?

Of course first-year medical student Christine Kennedy had put in that very request and by 1 a.m. a visibly sick patient was rolled into the room, ready for the liver transplant.

Watching that team of surgeons was just one of the many reminders for Kennedy, who is in UNBC's Northern Medical Program, that she was right where she needed to be.

"That was one of those moments that I was pretty amazed at what medicine can do and how completely fortunate I am to even have all these number of options," said Kennedy of the six-hour surgery.

"For me it was close to home too because I saw my mom die of eventual liver cancer and to see this person come in so sick and getting a new opportunity at life... how incredible is it that that's even possible."

The 27-year-old had seen teams of surgeons and doctors help her mother, Barbara Kennedy, who died at age 48 in May 2010.

"What was really incredible to me were the surgeons, it seemed to me decreased her symptoms and prolonged her life," she said. "I think that kind of got into my head the impact that these people had on our lives."

Half way through her master's degree in psychology Kennedy quit and started working towards her new dream, building up the necessary medical prerequisites.

Now Kennedy is being recognized for her impact on health. She is this year's winner of Rising Star Health Service Award handed out by the Northern Medical Program at Saturday's annual Bob Ewert Dinner. The $5,000 honour is granted to someone actively working toward improving health in the region.

In October, she was awarded another $5,000 through the Rural Education Action Plan.

"I'm so passionate about continuing my work with the rural northern research," said Kennedy, who has numerous academic accolades: as co-author of a published Rural Surgery article in Bulletin of American College of Surgeons; she's completing a Public Health Training Certificate at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health; and several research projects with her mentor Dr. Nadine Caron.

Kennedy was also a basketball star when she played for UNBC's Timberwolves from 2009 to 2011, named the league's player of the year and was handed an All-Canadian award in her first season.

"I don't know my exact path yet but I know definitely that we can do better in the north for health care," said Kennedy, who is passionate about public health, rural and aboriginal health, cancer research and surgery.

"There's unique barriers to living in the north, to living in First Nation communities," said Kennedy, whose mother was an accountant for the Fort Ware and Tsay Keh Dene band offices. "It's always been part of my life, having that background knowledge of colonization and First Nations health."

Her approach to medicine acknowledges historical and socio-economic factors that impact health.

"There's still aspects of health that aren't fully understood, for example with respect to aboriginal people, the intergenerational trauma and just having a better culturally competent approach to health care," said Kennedy, whose her fianc Colen Wilson is Metis, another reason she is passionate about the subject.

With rural communities she highlights the limited access to screenings, surgical care and other type of care that often require traveling great distances for even initial consultations. This summer her research will focus on family practitioners who offer essential surgical skills in rural communities, something she said is on the decline.

Kennedy thinks she can be an advocate for the health needs of the north.

"The main thing (that) my mom instilled in me is to truly stand up for what you believe in, and what's right," she said. "I need that education behind me when I want to speak up and to be an advocate for patient health and for the health of communities."

When her mom died, the then 22-year-old became sole guardian of her teenage sister Rachel and co-guardian of three-year-old Ceylyn.

"Both of them was the reason why I needed to stay okay and to continue to be the person that my mom raised me to be. I needed to be strong and a good role model because if I fell apart, what was going to happen?"

But they in turn gave her strength, Kennedy said, tracing her success to the people who support and surround her.

"I didn't do it alone."

The goal now is to keep moving forward, keep learning, and keep researching - all in an effort to make an impact.

"I'm going to make the most of every single moment I have in medical school, I have in my residency, I have in my spare time," she said. "I'm very passionate about and thankful for the opportunity and I definitely want to make the most of it because I know life is short and it's important to find what you love to do."

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