A Lifelong Drama Unfolds

Photo of Bailey Kernea
Photo of Bailey Kernea
Bailey Kernea is beginning her second year of medical school with high energy and excitement. Actually that is pretty much the way Bailey approaches life. The twenty-six year old explains, “You have to be your own person and also be confident in the fact that you’re a little different. I believe you have to embrace this or you’ll never make it.” Bailey admits that medical school is difficult, “But medical school is tough for everyone. I am no exception. There’s nothing special about me.” However, those who know Bailey might disagree with her.

Bailey was diagnosed with a mild form of cerebral palsy when she was very young. The entire right side of her body is weaker than the left. “This creates endurance problems and turns out to be more of a strength and conditioning challenge,” Bailey said. “I used a walker and a cane until I was around eleven or twelve years old when I experienced a growth spurt. That’s when I started using a wheelchair full time.” From the very beginning she wanted a fast wheelchair. “I’ve always had a Quickie.”

With a decidedly positive outlook, Bailey recognizes that her life has always pointed her in the direction of a career in medicine. “I am very lucky because I grew up in a small town and for most of my life I went to a very small school,” Bailey said. “From pre-school to eighth grade I went to the same school and graduated eighth grade with three people. I never experienced bullying or not being accepted. Even my high school was super small – it was great! Whatever the other kids were doing, they made sure I could do too. These situations helped me gain self-confidence.”

“I have been interested in medicine as long as I can remember,” Bailey said. “My great-grandmother was a nurse and my mother has been a nurse at Children’s Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee for over thirty years.” As a teenager, Baily volunteered at the hospital. “I was born three months premature and began life in NICU. I grew up learning how I came into the world and what people did to help me along the way. My experience from the time I was very small showed me that I wanted to study medicine and I wanted to work with kids.”

Bailey’s father has multiple sclerosis and she remembers that the family discussion around the dinner table often related to medical subjects. “My father was twenty-one when he learned he had MS. My parents were dating so they knew early on that they were going to face challenges and then I was born!” Bailey said. “Life has been a whirlwind but as a family we have never thought, ‘We can’t do this.’” Clearly the support and example set by Bailey’s parents, Lori and Sonny and her older brother, Blake have had a striking influence on the young woman. “I learned so much from my dad,” Bailey said. “He has had a lot of trials but he never complains and has continued to work.” Bailey’s brother now works with their father in the family business. “We do real estate appraisals. I was very happy that someone else wanted to continue the family business so I was free to go into medicine.”

Bailey also credits her parents for her personal work ethic and positive attitude. “My parents never told me I couldn’t do something because of my disability,” she said. “I realize not everyone has that strong, consistent support. Even my teachers never questioned my dreams. When I was young I would tell my teachers I was going to be a doctor and they never told me that I couldn’t do it.” Bailey admits that in some ways her mother is “super protective,” but “she realized that I had big dreams and that she couldn’t always be hovering over me. In her own way she taught me not to be afraid to fall either physically and in other ways. Mom put me in every sport that I wanted to try. I grew up on a farm and we had several horses. Before equine therapy became popular Mom would put me o n a horse without a saddle and I followed her around while she did chores.”

Bailey now uses a Quickie QM-710 power wheelchair and appreciates the difference it has made in her life. “This chair has all the bells and whistles,” she said. “It raises and lowers me to different heights so I can look patients and classmates in the eye. I didn’t realize how big of a thing that was until I could be eye-level with someone. It changed first impressions with others and helps me connect with patients. This chair makes it easier to reach things at home, too.” She was recently featured in a video that follows Bailey as she navigates her first-year as a medical student in her Quickie QM-710 wheelchair. “At first I was reluctant to do the video, but I remembered that when I was looking into the possibility of getting into a medical school it would have been very helpful to have this type of information,” Bailey said. “When you google ‘medical school’ and ‘wheelchair’ not much comes up. So I decided if I could be that one successful Google search for someone who wants to do what I’m doing, then I’m OK with it.”

When the time came for Bailey to go to college she and a close friend chose to attend a college close to home so she could continue to live with her family. However, a middle-of-the-night call from the friend led them to a different decision. “We agreed to apply to a college that would require us to move away from home, even though it was only an hour away,” Bailey said. “I realized that when I reached my ultimate goal of medical school, my mom couldn’t come with me. I needed to do this on my own to prove to myself what I was capable of doing.” Two weeks before her first college semester, Bailey applied to Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee and was accepted. After a year at Bryan, she transferred to Dalton State for two years and spent her last year of college at Kennesaw State near Atlanta, Georgia where she graduated in December of 2015 with a B.S. in Biology. “Kennesaw had the pre-med courses that I needed to get on track for medical school,” Bailey said. “All of this is to say that sometimes it takes more than one college to get you to where you need to be. However, I wouldn’t change my trajectory at all because I met people along the way that I wouldn’t have encountered any other way. Each experience taught me a different lesson.”

Having finished her undergrad degree, Baily now faced the arduous task of taking the required Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and she began preparing with her usual enthusiasm. “It so happens that the year I was going to take the exam everything changed,” Bailey explained. “The questions were different than in the past, what they were testing over was different and the scoring had changed. No one knew what we would be facing or what our scores would mean.” In addition to the demanding MCAT preparation, Bailey was also choosing and applying to medical schools. “Completing an application can take months,” she said. “You are required to write essays, personal statements, provide letters of recommendation and it is expensive. Because of my physical condition I knew some schools were going to be hesitant to accept me whether they admitted it or not.” However, Bailey made the decision to meet the possible negative reaction to her disability head on. Although it wasn’t required that she reveal her disability during the application process, she chose to address her situation in her essays and personal statements. “I included my life story and how my life experiences drew me to a career in medicine. In essence I answered the questions the schools were not allowed to ask.”

Bailey’s first try at the new, revised MCAT didn’t yield the score she needed to make her applications as strong as she wanted. She applied to 15 medical schools; made it to the second phase of the application with 7-8 schools and was invited to a personal interview at two of the schools. “This was somewhat disappointing to me,” Bailey said. “I have always been an ‘A’ student and I fully expected the results of this process to reflect the work I put into it. And I knew I had worked very hard.”

One of the schools Bailey interviewed with during her first round of applications was Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Georgia. “I loved the school!” Bailey said. “After I took the MCAT a second time, I focused on Mercer and applied only to that school.” Bailey looks back at her medical school application experience as part of her education. “I learned so much during the process!”

Now that her first year of medical school is behind her and she begins to move through the second year Bailey feels even stronger that Mercer is the perfect school for her. “We may have lectures once a week to address an especially hard topic, but usually we learn in small groups with a facilitator,” she said. “We’re given a case and then we learn the medicine behind the symptoms.” Bailey stresses that this isn’t always easy. “I’ve always been a Power Point/lecture student.”

Even during the most difficult times, you won’t find Bailey questioning her career choice, “On my worst days I never think that I don’t want to do this anymore.” She and a roommate now live in an apartment a short distance from campus. “We actually found each other on FaceBook. Brittany and I enjoy a very similar lifestyle. We love animals and both wanted to live downtown. We’re practically sisters and when I need help she is always there for me.” It helps that both young women are immersed in the medical school experience and, along with an extended group of friends, can support each other during this challenging but exhilarating time.

“I used to think that asking for help showed weakness and I felt I had to do everything on my own,” Bailey said. “I’m still very independent but at the same time I’m not ashamed to ask for help. In that regard Mercer has been exceptional. I haven’t required a lot of adaptions, but if something comes up, the school is very responsive.”

In an interview for the video featuring Bailey’s experience at Mercer University School of Medicine, Dr. Jean R. Sumner, Dean of the School of Medicine said, “We wanted Bailey because she is very well qualified. She has made us a better medical school.” Wherever Bailey Kernea brings her positive attitude and determination, she makes it a better place and her future, pediatric patients are certainly going to benefit, “I want to be the doctor to a child that my doctors were for me.”

You may reach Bailey Kernea at bailey.kernea@gmail.com .
Bailey Kernea is a consumer advocate who lives in Macon, Georgia.

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