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Answering the Call

Mary Kemen doesn't shy away from putting her medical training to use in difficult circumstances, including traveling to New York City to treat COVID-19 patients. 

Mary Kemen (BS Botany ’78, BS Biochemistry ’79, MD ’84) spent more than two weeks in April at a hospital on Long Island, N.Y., where 90 of the 400 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care. With elective procedures on hold at the hospital where she works in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the anesthesiologist had time to volunteer. 

Kemen, who spent three years in a surgical residency and worked with burn victims and malnourished children in South Sudan, said this was the first time she had worked with such a large group of severely ill patients. “I have never seen people as devastated as these coronavirus patients. It’s because the virus really attacks every organ system,” she said.

After spending two weeks in an environment that she describes as “very intense,” Kemen returned to Iowa with a layover at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. She was surprised to find few people wearing masks, both in the Twin Cities and Cedar Rapids airports. “In Iowa there’s still a sense of ‘it’s happening there.’ ... It doesn’t affect me,” she said. If people could see what COVID patients in intensive care look like, Kemen said, “I would hope that they would realize that nobody wants to die that way, and nobody wants to risk dying that way.”

The time in New York and Kemen’s two years working for Doctors Without Borders in South Sudan and Nigeria, are par for the course for a woman who says she “always tries to find things that are interesting and different.” Working in medicine has given Kemen the common skills, knowledge base and language that she said transfers to many different settings. “I like that about it,” she said. “It’s something that allows you to step into different cultures and situations.”

A native of Rochester, Minn., Kemen hadn’t planned a career in medicine. She thought she’d be a professional bassoonist, but during her first year at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., she developed a peripheral neuropathy in her hands that became so problematic a Mayo Clinic doctor suggested she find a different profession.

She returned to Minnesota and enrolled at the U, where her brothers, parents, grandparents and great grandfather received their educations. She majored in botany and biochemistry, studied German and continued her involvement in music. She met her husband, Brian Randall (MD ’84) while they both attended medical school. She graduated exactly 100 years after her great grandfather started at the U.

Kemen says it is family tradition to give back to the U. She serves on the CBS Steering Committee; is the founder of the Douglas C. Pratt Undergraduate Scholarship; is the co-founder with her mother, Genevieve Kemen, of the Joseph and Genevieve Kemen Agriculture Education Scholarship in CFANS; and has been a supporter of a long list of funds and initiatives at the U. 

“My husband and I both recognize we owe everything to the University of Minnesota because it launched us into careers we love, CBS in particular for me,” she said. “Over the last three years in this country, we have begun disputing the validity and importance of science, and so anything that trains people either to go out and teach science or do scientific research or promote the importance of science in the younger grades is crucial for us to support right now.” 

When Kemen’s not working, volunteering or supporting the institution she loves, she still plays the bassoon. She recently joined a trio with her junior high school band director from Rochester who lives in Iowa and had kept in touch with Kemen over the years. The group is named Two Two One after the two double-reed instruments and one single-reed instrument in the group—an oboe, bassoon and clarinet. “They needed a bassoonist,” Kemen said, “and I said sure.” -Kristal Leebrick

Kemen’s experience in New York was featured on an Iowa TV news program on April 28. The interview on Iowa’s KCRG can be found here.

May, 2020