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KU School of Medicine faculty member returns to the classroom after a life-saving heart procedure

KU medical students will continue to benefit from the wisdom of Michael Kennedy, M.D., thanks to an innovative new procedure done at The University of Kansas Health System.

Michael Kennedy sits on a bench beside prairie grass
Michael Kennedy, M.D., overcame a potentially life-threatening condition to return to the classroom after an intervention for his heart’s chronic total occlusion.

If you were walking by one of the study rooms of the Health Education Building at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas this spring, you might have seen a man in a business-blue shirt, shirt sleeves rolled up, surrounded by six young people in a study room.

With his impressive gray hair and equally hirsute white mustache, the man could appear to be the room’s wizardly elder. But the real clue to his identity is in the smile on his face and the dry-erase marker in his hand. Even from the hallway, anyone can see that this man loves teaching.

And thanks to an impressive new heart procedure he underwent at the hands of a medical colleague, this particular professor, Michael Kennedy, can keep doing what he loves.

It looks like the end

Feb. 15, 2021. Michael Kennedy, M.D., professor of family medicine and associate dean for rural health education in the University of Kansas School of Medicine, is having a heart attack. He arrives at The University of Kansas Hospital, just a stone’s throw from his office in the academic medical center, in the back of an ambulance. After learning that he wasn’t a candidate for stents — the small mesh tubes that can hold open narrowed arteries leading to his heart — he undergoes triple bypass surgery.

July 1, 2021. Kennedy retires after 21 years as a faculty member at KU Medical Center. The retirement, Kennedy explains, was not brought about by the heart attack. “I was in the stages of planning for retirement, but after my heart attack, I decided, ‘Yeah, let’s toss in.’” The plan was to retire but return as a volunteer teacher for KU medical students. “Continuing to volunteer teach was important because that’s what I love to do; I love teaching,” Kennedy says.

October 2022. Something’s not right, and Kennedy knows it. His face is waxy and pale. His energy is low. “I go on a walk outside, and I have to take frequent rest breaks. I get a mile in, and I say, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be able to walk a lot better than this.’” Kennedy visits his doctor, and the news is not good. “It was a depressing appointment,” Kennedy says. “It was essentially ‘Get your affairs in order.’ My wife and I were devastated.”

All the things he’d wanted to do in retirement — traveling, spending time with family, and (of course) continuing to teach as a professor emeritus — looked out of reach. But it turned out not to be the end after all.

A new plan

Later in October 2022. A phone call sets a new path. “My doctor called and said, ‘I have this partner of mine that specializes in total occlusive disease, he reviewed your case, and he thinks he can help you,’” Kennedy says. “What an emotional roller coaster. So, we made a consultation visit with Dr. Spaedy.”

Dec. 1, 2022. Anthony (Tony) Spaedy, M.D., assistant professor of cardiovascular medicine at KU Medical Center and cardiologist for The University of Kansas Health System, intervenes to “fix” Kennedy’s chronic total occlusion (CTO), a 100% blockage of the main artery of the heart. “We’re basically threading a little catheter and wire right down the vessel,” Spaedy says. “The reason this was not very common say, 15 years ago, was (because) we just didn’t have the equipment. But now there have been some major advancements that allow us to get the majority of these open safely.”

Later on Dec. 1, 2022. In the recovery unit of the intensive care unit, Kennedy asks if he can get up and walk around. “I was just tearing up and down the hallway,” Kennedy says. “I was so energized, I was ready to leave the hospital right then. But they made me wait until morning.”

April 7, 2023. Kennedy and Spaedy appear on the Morning Medical Update presented by The University of Kansas Health System to share their story. Kennedy also shares highlights of his medical and teaching career, including service trips to Guatemala, his time as a family practice physician in rural Kansas and his mission to improve access to medical care in rural areas.

Back to the classroom

After his CTO intervention, Kennedy returned to teaching KU medical students. In February 2023, he led Problem-Based Learning (PBL), a small group of second-year medical students who work together to practice presenting the facts of a medical case and arrive at possible diagnoses.

“Dr. Kennedy helped us hone our critical thinking skills in order to consider every possible aspect of the case,” said Kaya Nies, one of the medical students in Kennedy’s PBL. “He had personal stories from his own career relating to many of the topics we discussed. It was special to be able to hear from him firsthand about how these cases play out in real life and how patients are actually impacted.”

Taylor Knowles, another student in the PBL, said Kennedy always seemed to have a smile on his face while teaching. “He made an effort to connect with us and often lingered after class to chat about life and share funny stories,” she said. “It was a joy to be able to learn from him, and I’m thankful for the experience.”

Kennedy is also renovating his home alongside his high school sweetheart and wife of 47 years, Carla, and the two have resumed traveling. They recently visited Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Four Corners area of the U.S. but still prioritize time with their seven grandkids.

“I have such overwhelming gratitude for what has happened,” Kennedy said. “It’s crazy, it’s overwhelming, how positive all this is.”

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