Gala Honoree Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Kemi Alli

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“If you want something to be different, you make it different.”

It’s a credo that has guided the career of Kemi Alli, MD. And it’s one of the many reasons PCDC is proud to honor Dr. Alli at the Gala Reception on Tuesday, November 19.

As CEO of Henry J. Austin Health Center (HJAHC) in Trenton, NJ, Dr. Alli primarily serves patients living below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Previously, she served for seven years as Chief Medical Officer and has been a pediatrician at the center for nearly two decades.

Through $2.95 million in PCDC financing, HJAHC will soon expand and upgrade its main site, increasing trauma-informed care access for Trenton’s most vulnerable residents.

In a recent conversation, Dr. Alli reflected on her inspirations and motivations — and the sole reason she’d consider moving on from HJAHC.


When did you first realize that health care was your “calling?”

I didn’t have a sense of a calling until I got involved in the HJAHC, but I always knew I wanted to go into medicine. Initially I thought that meant veterinary school. But then I had a college roommate who was always studying, and I asked her why. She said, “Oh, because I’m going to be a doctor.”

Until then, the thought had never occurred to me, because my mother was the first person in her family to go to college. But suddenly I thought, maybe that’s what I’ll do. And I applied to one school, and I got in.

That’s when I found my true calling in pediatrics and wanting to — I know it sounds a little hokey — make the world a better place. What my mom instilled in me is that one person can make a difference, and if you want something to be different, you make it different.

 

You are deeply devoted to HJAHC and the Trenton community at large. What inspires you?

I grew up in Somerville, New Jersey, which is not too far from HJAHC. I was blessed — I was poor, but I didn’t know I was poor. It was a small town. I had lots of relatives and just this unconditional love from all my relatives.

An HJAHC pediatrician with a young patient. (Photo courtesy of HJAHC.)

But as I grew up and went to medical school, especially when I went to residency, I learned how ill my family was. My grandfather died of lung cancer. My grandmother died of colon cancer. My aunt died of breast cancer. I had an uncle who died of AIDS. Really, any ailment — from alcoholism to addiction — was in my family.

So when I came to residency and beyond, I realized that people are treated differently — not just based on the color of their skin, but also the amount of money they have or do not have. And I just thought that was so unjust.

How could it be that someone would treat my nana differently because of who she was? My relatives were not their illnesses. They were my nana, my papa, my uncle, my cousin. They were the people I love.

So when patients walk through my doors, I really see my family: my nana, my uncle, my son. I see the people that I love and know that someone loves them equally.

As human beings on this earth, we all deserve the right to dignity, to good health care. The question is, How can I make that happen? How can I be a part of shaping that? That is what inspires me.

 

You recently discussed the concept of an “invisible umbilical cord.” Can you talk more about that?

We’re all tied and connected. But there’s this special invisible umbilical cord between a child and caregiver, whether that’s the mother or the father or the grandmother. And you can’t have a healthy child without a healthy family. So, as we look at how to uplift a next generation of children, we have to think about the families too.

Often families will walk through my door saying, “My son or daughter isn’t behaving, can you help them?” I say, “Well, I can help all of you because [the child] is directly connected to you. I can’t make him or her healthy if you are not healthy.”

 

You’ve been lauded for helping shape and grow HJAHC. What’s an accomplishment you’re especially proud of?

Honestly, it is the work I’m doing with PCDC. That’s coincidental — when I came to Henry J. Austin more than 20 years ago, I was struck with just how… ugly it was, for lack of a better word! It was just unpleasant to the eye.

A rendering of HJAHC’s expanded and upgraded main site.

But if I went five miles up the road, there was this beautiful hospital in Princeton. It was a physical disparity. Our patients deserve a place that is respectful to them as human beings. They can have a sense of dignity because, so often in impoverished communities, we lack that.

This has been my dream to make a facility that’s a beacon — both internally, because of the services we provide, but also externally, through a physical manifestation of the awesome work we do within the four walls. It has been a journey to make this happen.

The PCDC partnership, along with grants and donations, will culminate in revitalizing, renovating, and changing the physical space that our patients and staff visit every day.

 

Where would you send a first-time visitor to Trenton?

Oh, I think my favorite is the Planetarium at New Jersey State Museum. You sit down, you look up at the stars, yet you’re in inner-city Trenton. It’s beautiful. There are other great spots, but that’s the number one.

 

Is there a question we didn’t ask that you would’ve? 

Well, there’s a question that many others have asked me: “Why 20 years at one health center? Why have you stayed?”

I love what I do, and I do believe this is my purpose, which is so much grander than anything. It’s like those people that do the really hard work, but they really feel within their core, within their soul, this is their purpose — that this is what they were put on earth for. And I feel that.

I guess the day I wake up and no longer feel that is when I would leave. So far, after 20-something odd years, that hasn’t happened. Every day, I am genuinely excited to come to work because of the possibilities of what can be done. Until there aren’t any possibilities left, I’ll be here.

Register for the Gala Reception here.

HJAHC’s primary care services include dental, nutrition, social service, substance abuse assessment and intervention, mental and behavioral health, translation services, transportation, eye care, podiatry, and an onsite pharmacy. (Photo courtesy of HJAHC.)