Chief of Emergency Medicine, Mercy Medical Center
He Considers Listening His Strongest, Most Important Talent
As a general rule, physicians working in the emergency room don’t get to know their patients as well as those in primary care or other specialties, who see their patients regularly and over the course of years and, sometimes, decades.
But Dr. Mark Kenton makes it a point to get to know those who come to his ER, the one at Mercy Medical Center. Indeed, he said he always looks to make a connection by listening to each patient and learning about what they are interested in and passionate about.
In addition to making these connections, he tries to get involved and make a difference, in ways that go beyond providing medical care.
“Sometimes, the best medicine you give someone is not actually medication,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just listening. Everyone has a story.”
He was listening as one patient, a veteran named Homer who was going into hospice care, expressed regrets about never making it to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. So Kenton researched the Honor Flights program and worked with the patient’s family to help make arrangements for him to visit the stirring memorial. Later, he received a letter from that family.
“They said he died two weeks before he was scheduled to go, but he died knowing that he was going, and it meant a lot to him,” Kenton recalled. “That stuck with me.”
He was also listening to another patient who was near the end of his battle with cancer and came to understand that the two shared a love of baseball and the Red Sox. Kenton arranged a phone call to the patient from former catcher Rich Gedman, whom Kenton had come to know well from his participation in Red Sox fantasy camps.
“Sometimes, the best medicine you give someone is not actually medication. It’s just listening. Everyone has a story.”
“He said, ‘I can’t believe Rich Gedman actually called me,’” Kenton recalled, adding that the conversation had a lasting impact.
This ability to listen, and act on what he hears, is one of many traits that has made Kenton a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Healthcare Administration category — annually one of the most competitive categories within the program.
He stood out amid a number of others nominated for the award for his ability to act upon what’s heard — in a variety of different settings — and generate needed dialogue, which has sometimes led to real change.
This includes the ER at Mercy, where he has worked with others to improve flow, shorten wait times, and reduce the number of patients who leave the ER without being seen, battles that have become even more difficult amid critical shortages of trained professionals, especially nurses.
But it also includes the national medical stage, as we’ll see. Indeed, a letter posted on Facebook from Kenton to the CEO of Mylan juxtaposed the CEO’s salary against the sky-high cost of EpiPens and thrust the debate about the rising cost of pharmaceuticals into the national spotlight.
In Massachusetts, Kenton played a strong role in the passage of a bill that would allow EpiPens to be purchased in the same manner as Narcan for municipalities, whereby the state would purchase them at something approaching cost.
Kenton has also advocated for increased protection from workplace violence in hospitals, testifying at the State House after a colleague at Harrington Hospital suffered a near-fatal stabbing. Those efforts have been less successful in generating change — a result he blames on the high cost of measures such as metal detectors — but he continues to push for legislation that might prevent such incidents.
For his ability to listen and effect change — in his ER and many other settings as well — Kenton is certainly worthy to be called a Healthcare Hero.
A Great Run
The art hanging on the walls of Kenton’s office certainly helps tell his story.
Most of the pictures are baseball-themed — he played in college, has attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown since 1981, and has more than 7,000 baseball autographs, by his estimate — including photos from the fantasy camps he’s attended, with his children prominent in many of them.
“I’ve been going for 13 years now, and it’s been a pretty amazing experience,” he said, noting that he’s been on the same field as many Red Sox legends. “Now, it’s more about going back and playing with friends than seeing the Red Sox — but they’ve become friends, too.”
But there’s also a framed photo of the cast members of The Office, a gift from his children. He is a huge fan of the show, and notes with a large dose of pride that he’s met several of the cast members and possesses a suit jacket that Steve Carell wore on the show.
While Kenton spends a good amount of time in this space, his true office, if you will, has always been the ER, and especially the one at Mercy. He arrived there in 2003 and became chief of Emergency Medicine in late 2019, three months before COVID hit and turned the healthcare system, and especially the ER, on its ear.
The trajectory for this career course was set over time, and Kenton believes his passion for helping others began when he watched medical dramas on television with his mother and became captivated with what he saw.
“My mother had cancer as a child; she spent a lot of time in hospitals and always had a fascination with healthcare,” he recalled. “She was always reading medical books, and we watched every show you can think of — Quincy; Trapper John, M.D.; St. Elsewhere; you name it.”
Because of his love for baseball, Kenton initially considered a career as an athletic trainer, since he could combine both his passions, baseball and healthcare, and he attended Springfield College with that goal in mind.
He quickly realized that the life of an athletic trainer did not have a lot of stability. And after working as an EMT, a rewarding but also harrowing experience — “I remember going to shootings and the shooter was still on the loose” — he decided the emergency room was where he wanted to spend his career. He earned his medical degree at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, with the goal of completing his residency in Baystate Medical Center’s ER, a path that became reality.
“I hand out my business card to patients, talk to them, and ask, ‘why are you here today?’ I do that as one more check to make we’re not missing something.”
As he talked about working in the ER, Kenton related what he told his students when he served as medical director of the Physician Assistant Program at Springfield College. “I would always say, ‘be a little scared every day when you walk in — never lose that. Have a little fear when you walk in, because you don’t know everything, nor should you know everything. You need to know what your resources are and how to utilize those resources. You also need to know that you’re going to be tested — every day.’”
Safe at Home
These days, most of Kenton’s work is administrative in nature — he does one clinical shift per week — and, summing it up, he said it’s about making this ER as safe, welcoming, efficient, and effective as he can.
It needs to be all of the above because the ER is the “front door to the hospital,” as he put it, and a safety net for many within the community.
“There are so many patients that don’t have primary-care doctors now or don’t have insurance,” he said. “The ER is what they turn to.”
As he works with his team to improve flow, reduce wait times, and improve the ‘leave without being seen’ numbers, Kenton relies on what might be the strongest of his many skills — listening. In fact, he’s in the waiting room every ‘admin’ day talking with not only patients, but their families as well.
“I hand out my business card to patients, talk to them, and ask, ‘why are you here today?’” he said. “I do that as one more check to make we’re not missing something. I tell them that we’re working hard to get people through the system, and we’ll work on getting you through as soon as we can. And then, I listen.”
This brings him back to his comments about how everyone has a story, and it’s important to know and understand that story.
“You can look at the medical problem, but if you look at them as just a patient, you kind of forget that behind that patient is a person who’s scared, a family that’s scared,” he said. “Some people have lived incredible lives and been very fortunate, and some people have not had very good luck, or they’ve made bad choices, or they haven’t had the opportunities that others have had.
“I’ve taken care of Tuskegee Airmen; I took care of a gentleman who told me he flew on the Enola Gay,” he went on, referencing the famed African-American fighter and bomber pilots who fought in World War II and the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “You learn from those stories.”
While listening, learning, taking care of patients and their families, and improving efficiency in the ER, Kenton has also become an advocate for needed change in healthcare. His open letter to the CEO of Mylan on Facebook was spurred by incidents in his personal and professional life.
Indeed, while on vacation with his family, his son had an allergic reaction to peanuts. He soon learned that a prescription for two EpiPens, the best treatment for anaphylaxis, would cost $600. Fortunately, that prescription was transferred to a pharmacy that would accept his insurance, bringing the cost down to $15.
But he understood that such good fortune would elude others. While working a shift in Mercy’s ED a few months later, he saw two patients suffering from anaphylactic reactions and gave them both EpiPens, knowing they wouldn’t be able to fill the prescriptions going forward because they didn’t have insurance.
His frustration with this matter prompted his letter, which garnered press across the country and a live interview on Fox Business. More importantly, it generated real change, especially in the Bay State. Kenton testified before the state Senate on a bill introduced by former Sen. Eric Lesser to make EpiPens available for purchase by the state, just like Narcan.
Stepping Outside the Box
Two years after Kenton received that letter from the family of that veteran who died before he could get to the World War II memorial, his wife was running in a marathon in D.C., and he made the trip with her.
He wrote Homer’s name on a piece of paper, took pictures of it in various spots at the memorial, and sent them to his family.
“I said, ‘your dad finally made it,’” he told BusinessWest. “From what he told me during that relationship we established in a really short period of time, that brought closure to me, that he made it there.
“There are things you can do beyond providing medication to someone — sometimes you just have to step outside the box a little bit,” he went on, using a baseball term to get his point across.
This ability to forge those relationships, listen to each patient’s and each family’s story, and go well beyond simply providing medication helps explain why Kenton stands out — in his field, in his ER, and in his community. And why he is being recognized as a Healthcare Hero. n