March 29, 2022
Mother and daughter share passion for emergency medicine and their alma mater
Kim Keith and her daughter Mary Katherine Keith continue the VCU tradition of providing excellent care to their patients.
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Mary Katherine Keith, M.D., knew what she wanted to do with her life as early as kindergarten when she dressed up as a doctor for career day. Her desire to enter the medical field came naturally. Her mom, Kim Keith, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician and Mary Kat saw how her mom helped others.
“I remember growing up, we would be at a sporting event and a fellow student would get hurt and Mom would come and fix the problem,” said Mary Kat, who graduated from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in 2017 and is now working at Raleigh Emergency Medicine Associates at UNC Healthcare Rex in Raleigh and in Holly Springs, North Carolina. “A career in medicine wasn’t ever pushed on me. It was something I thoroughly enjoyed.”
Mary Kat grew up in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where her mom worked at an emergency center. At the time, there was no hospital in the Outer Banks.
“My mom identified the need for a hospital there and helped get it built,” Mary Kat said.
Kim Keith, a 1986 VCU School of Medicine alum now working for Valley Health at Warren Memorial Hospital, Shenandoah Memorial Hospital and Hampshire Memorial Hospital in West Virginia, didn’t start thinking about medicine until she was in high school. That interest intensified when she worked in the emergency room at Williamsburg Community Hospital during her undergraduate years at William & Mary.
“I decided to go into emergency medicine because of that experience,” Kim said, noting that she has always worked in rural hospitals. “I thought it was a career that would always challenge me.”
Their biggest challenge to date
Neither mother nor daughter realized those challenges would include a pandemic that would not only devastate people physically but also emotionally.
Mary Kat, also an emergency room physician, was working in New Orleans when the pandemic began. In March 2020, New Orleans was an epicenter of COVID-19. At the time, the Orleans Parish had the highest number of deaths per capita of any county in the U.S.
“I took care of our first COVID-19 patient in New Orleans. I was on the intensive care unit
rotation. It was one of the hardest challenges for me, going through the pandemic in the beginning,” she said. “Emergency room physicians are known for keeping our calm, but it was hard because we were afraid of bringing this home to our family and friends. I think the not knowing was one of the biggest things we had to deal with. We were getting emails or changes every two hours. We were having to adapt to new procedures and also be there for our patients.”
The intensive care unit where Mary Kat worked started to fill up with people on ventilators. She and fellow ER physicians had to constantly update frantic families.
“We would tell them we are doing the best we can. It was the hardest thing, keeping that demeanor of an ER doctor and taking all that on,” Mary Kat said. “Personally, I didn’t come home to my family in Virginia out of fear of bringing it home to them. Mom and I had conversations about how we were staying safe and not passing the virus along to family.”
When COVID-19 hit, Kim moved out of her home in Winchester, Virginia, so she wouldn’t expose her husband to the virus. She lived away from home for 14 months, until her husband could be vaccinated.
“I would read updates every night. It was the most challenging time of my career. The testing protocols would change three to four times during your shift. It really challenged your commitment to medicine. For me, it is what I signed up for,” she said, adding, “We knew what was happening, but the world didn’t. People who didn’t know were skeptical of our suggestions of, ‘Don’t go out,’ etc. It was very scary. So many of my colleagues have retired because of it. I still wear scrubs, which I never wore. I still take a shower before I come home.”
Mary Kat is grateful to everyone for what they have done through this pandemic, she said.
“I am proud of the people I have been around during the pandemic and how supportive everybody has been for physicians,” she said.
Overcoming long-outdated perceptions
The pandemic isn’t the only challenge that both mother and daughter have had to face during their careers. More subtle, but often still as pervasive, is people’s perception of what a doctor should look like.
“For my limited amount of time practicing medicine, it’s not uncommon for me to go into a room and introduce myself and hear the patient ask, ‘When am I going to see the doctor?’” Mary Kat said. “Women physicians are often thought of like that. Medicine has adapted more to having women in the field than when my mom went through school, but there is still a ways to go. Patients assume that a male nurse is the doctor.”
Kim was aware of the perception when she went into medicine and chose to address it early in her career.
“I made it a point not to look like a nurse. I went into work in a dress or skirt so I wouldn’t be mistaken,” she said. “Now, with the pandemic, this is the first time in my career that I am wearing scrubs to work.”
When Kim started medical school, women represented only 25% of her class.
“I didn’t allow myself to focus on that,” Kim said. “I wanted to be a doctor. I didn’t distinguish myself as female. I thought if I can’t keep muster with my male counterparts, I didn’t use the excuse of being female.”
Kim has six children, three of whom are doctors — Mary Kat, her sister Becky, an intern in emergency medicine at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, and brother Tyler. He and his wife, Nella Hendley, are second-year emergency medicine residents at Wake Forest University in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
VCU provided hands-on, interactive learning
When it came time for Kim to pick a medical school, she chose VCU School of Medicine because of how well respected it was, she said.
“It was known to give students the most clinical experience,” she said. “That is where you went to be a practicing doctor. I like the hands-on approach and the interaction with people.”
Being at VCU showed her what it takes to be a doctor, she said.
“With VCU being in Richmond, it gives you the privilege to see a population that crosses all barriers,” she said. “You see the whole gamut. You get to be clinically involved in their care. VCU continues to train doctors who are going to take excellent care of patients and that is the focus.”
Harry Kraus, M.D., a general surgeon at Hampton VA Medical Center, was in medical school with Kim for four years. They sat next to each other in lectures. He liked her personality and confidence.
“She was easy to like because she was easy to be around. She was practical, not a high-maintenance kind of person,” he said. “She cared about people. She was friendly and easy to talk to.”
He instinctively knew she was on the right path for the right reasons, he said.
“She was in medicine because she was a good people person, and she would put her life into taking care of other people. She was all about other people,” he said. “As a mom, she was always taking care of her kids and giving them a foundation for success in life.”
As luck would have it, Mary Kat and Kraus’ son were in the same class at VCU and graduated on the same day.
“It didn’t surprise me that my kid wanted to go into medicine because I loved what I did,” Kraus said. “It didn’t surprise me that her daughter went into medicine because Kim loved people and medicine. If you love people and medicine, your kids will love people and medicine.”
Elizabeth Trefzger, M.D., also graduated with Kim in 1986.
“We always had this special bond. She was always like a mentor to me. Kim is brilliant. In medical school, I was always so impressed about how smart she was. She was friendly, compassionate and caring,” said Trefzger, whose daughter, Grace Mueller, M.D., is chief pediatric resident in VCU pediatrics and another daughter, Anna Mueller, is in the nurse practitioner program at VCU. “Our families have a lot of parallels.”
Continuing a legacy at VCU
Mary Kat remembers reading her acceptance letter from VCU while her family was eating dinner at Olive Garden restaurant.
“We screamed, and we were all in tears,” she said, noting that she had applied to several medical schools. “I picked VCU because I like [that] VCU is so welcoming. I loved every clinical rotation that I had, but I realized emergency room medicine is what I wanted to do.”
The involvement she got to have with patients at VCU was a bonus.
“We also got to take care of veterans at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, which is dear to my heart,” Mary Kat said. “One of my favorite classes was our class on how to be a doctor. It was run by physicians of all specialties. We would talk about bedside manner and how to get the patient to trust you. VCU does a good job of producing that type of clinician because we got to have hands-on experience. We had an amazing simulation center as well as feedback. VCU does an amazing job. I am so proud of VCU and my class. It produced some very genuine and very caring physicians.”
Match Day and graduation were both memorable, she said.
“On Match Day, my whole family was there as well as the core group of girls that went through medical school with me. The week before Match Day we went to Ireland for a 10-day road trip. We got our match letters at the top of the Guinness distillery and all of us matched.”
Aditi Sharma, M.D., a micrographic surgery and dermatologic oncology fellow at the University of California, San Francisco, was one of Mary Kat’s fellow travelers to Ireland.
“She has a heart of gold and an innate sense of goodness that she is always willing to stand behind,” Sharma said of Mary Kat. “These qualities, in combination with her meticulousness and drive for excellence, were the reasons I was sure she would be the outstanding physician she is today. We have experienced life's highs and lows together, and I can confidently say there is no one I would rather have had standing by my side.”
Because of her status as an alum, Kim was able to sit with her daughter when Mary Kat graduated from VCU.
“I loved the fact that my mom got to be recognized with me,” Mary Kat said. “It was such a happy time.”
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