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College of Medicine Alumna Kelly Arnold Honored for Innovation in Pandemic in Chattanooga

Dr. Kelly Arnold, right, consults with a staff member at Clinica Medicos.
Dr. Kelly Arnold, right, consults with a staff member at Clinica Medicos.

In the early, frightening days of the COVID-19 pandemic, UTHSC College of Medicine alumna, Kelly Arnold, MD, (’06) and the rest of the staff at Clínica Médicos in Chattanooga took a hard look at what was happening in their city. Clinics were closing all around them. Clínica Médicos, they said, would not.

Acting quickly, Dr. Arnold, the clinic’s founder and medical director, applied for a grant from the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. This allowed the clinic to serve every patient in April 2020 – more than 1,300 individuals – free of charge

“Health care organizations and corporate medicine were closing left and right with the false notion that a computer screen was an adequate solution,” said Dr. Arnold, associate professor at UTHSC College of Medicine in Chattanooga.

“But we have patients who are essential workers, workers who are on the job every day – with trauma and accidents. We have women who are pregnant and contracting. We have children being told they cannot return to school without a test,” she said. “The screen doesn’t help that.”

The clinic also set up a separate drive-up operation to test, and later vaccinate, people who in many cases had no insurance or citizenship papers.

“No problem,” said Dr. Arnold, 44. “We serve humans in need.”

By the end of 2021, her bilingual staff had tested or vaccinated 22,000 people on top of serving 21,000 clinical patients.

For her courage in helping patients fight the pandemic, the Tennessee Academy of Family Physicians (TAFP) honored Dr. Arnold with its Boundary Breaker Award in late 2021.

The recognition was given to two physicians in each state who came up with innovative ways to shape a future where health care knows no boundaries, according to Cathy Dyer, executive director of the TAFP. She has known Dr. Arnold since she was a child.

“She has dedicated her life to the underserved. She has a wonderful heart and a way of giving of herself that not everyone is able to do.”

The other Tennessee recipient is Scott Morris, MD, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis.

In 2020, TAFP named Arnold its Physician of the Year for her swift, courageous response in the pandemic.

“It’s an honor to accept these awards for all of us in this work,” Arnold said. “I am a piece of a very large picture.”

Dr. Arnold and her team expanded the practice early in the pandemic to include testing and vaccination at a separate facility.
Dr. Arnold and her team expanded the practice early in the pandemic to include testing and vaccination at a separate facility.

In the beginning

Clínica Médicos, a comprehensive clinic that includes surgical obstetrics. It opened in 2015, based on the mission practice that Arnold’s father, William MacMillan Rodney, MD, started in 2000 in Memphis, after serving as chair of the Department of Family Medicine at UTHSC.

Early in the pandemic, Clínica Médicos was in the hardest-hit ZIP code in Hamilton County. Few of the county’s public health messages were in Spanish. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger found himself relying quickly on the trust Dr. Arnold had among Hispanic people. She was already a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County COVID-19 Task Force.

“They are comfortable talking with her because she is the medical provider for a lot of people in that community. Frankly, we didn’t have anywhere near the connections she did when people were suffering and needed to be tested,” he said.

For Stacy Johnson, executive director of advocacy organization La Paz Chattanooga, Dr. Arnold’s clinic is a lifeline. The baseline is quality care in a safe environment.

“We are happy to know our clients will receive care in a culturally and in linguistically appropriate manner, which makes all the difference.”

Innovation requires expansion

Under Dr. Arnold’s direction, the clinic has purchased a second facility in Chattanooga with the intention of offering behavioral health and dentistry to the underserved Latino population. She started Médícos Mission Fund, a nonprofit 501(C)(3), to raise funds for the expanded mission.

The goal is $10 million, which will allow the clinic to nearly double its staff to more than 100 people.

For Dr. Arnold, the work is intensely personal and, in many ways, an extension of the intentionality of the family hero, her great grandmother, Mary MacMillan, the first woman to practice medicine in the state of Washington.

“She graduated from the University of Minnesota Medical School and took herself alone with a shotgun in a horse-drawn buggy to Spokane,” Dr. Arnold said.

“I certainly think her history and her being a physician is a very strong part of who I am.”

The clinic is now raising $10 million to add dentistry and behavioral health.
The clinic is now raising $10 million to add dentistry and behavioral health to its offerings.

At the time, female medical students in Minnesota were not allowed to do dissection along with male students.

Dr. Arnold is married to Justin Arnold, MD, also raduate of the UTHSC College of Medicine (’05). In their living room is a photograph of her storied forebearer, wearing a white dress and hat, studying dissection with the nurses.

“I am so thankful for her legacy. Our family feels a very strong desire to be a voice for people who often don’t have one,” Dr. Arnold said.

Seeing a need and taking it personally

Dr. Arnold knew from a young age she wanted to be a physician but took a nontraditional path. She made her decision after earning an undergraduate degree in Spanish and religious studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and serving on mission trips in Ecuador, Cuba, and Guatemala.

“I love the language. I love the culture. I love the landscape, and I love the people.”

Her decision was cemented in medical school at UTHSC, where she found she was often the only person who could translate for Hispanic patients in the hospital and clinical setting.

“These were systems that hadn’t adequately adapted – some still haven’t adapted – to the landscape in this country, which is multilingual and global in many ways,” she said.

As an associate professor, it was hard not to notice that a growing group of Hispanic patients specifically asked to see her.

“I was the only physician in the practice that spoke Spanish,” Dr. Arnold said.

Her patients then were a large group of political refugees from Cuba in Chattanooga.

“I discovered the challenges they were facing – documentation, lack of insurance – and realized there was definitely room for the Memphis model in Chattanooga,” she says.

There were easy solutions through an independent model.

Future is based on the past

“When we started, there were five of us,” she recalls. “None of us had medically managed anything, but we all firmly believed we knew the right thing to do for patients. And we knew it didn’t have to cost a lot.”

Much of Dr. Arnold’s time now is about looking ahead to expanding her practice, serving more families, and expanding the range of care options among the most vulnerable people in Chattanooga. She’s quick to point out that her innovation and agility in delivering medicine are deeply grounded in the values and tradition of the past – both hers and her profession’s.

“My family and my partners are trying to revisit the way health care was practiced in the past,” she says, “in order to build a better future.”