Article Category Archives: Class Notes

Yeoman’s Work

By participating in nearly 100 humanitarian mission trips, pediatric emergency medicine physician Jeff Kempf dedicated his career to providing as many services as possible to children around the globe. 

photo by Ted Stevens

As a kid, Jeff Kempf was given a book about Tom Dooley, an American physician who was known for providing humanitarian care, primarily in Southeast Asia prior to the Vietnam War. The book so impacted Kempf that he knew he wanted to be a doctor. After graduating from the University in 1978 with a degree in biology, he stayed in town, earning a medical degree from A.T. Still University-KCOM. In a career spanning five decades, he has followed in the footsteps of Dooley, offering care to countless children in the U.S. and abroad.

After completing an internship and general pediatric residency, Kempf took a public health position in Florida, primarily to alleviate the debt from his education. His job put him in close proximity with indigent patients, giving him insight into the pitfalls of the medical establishment.

“I found it to be an incredibly fulfilling job,” he said. “It opened my eyes to how health care is very unevenly distributed in our country.”

After marrying Ellen, his wife of 37 years and a fellow pediatrician, Kempf relocated to Ohio to pursue a subspecialty in emergency medicine. He went on to serve for 30 years in the emergency department at Akron Children’s Hospital. Kempf did not confine his medical talents to the Buckeye State. He and Ellen devoted their time to medical mission trips around the world, including Kenya, Belize, Ethiopia and Haiti. In total, Kempf estimates he has participated in some capacity on nearly 100 humanitarian efforts.

“I do believe that health care should be a human right, for every human, not only in the United States, but in the world,” he said. “That should be a universal goal for all of us.”

In 2012, Kempf was approached by Gift of Life Northeast Ohio, a nonprofit organization that serves children and their families from developing nations who do not have access to cardiac care. Kempf’s desire to provide health care to all those who need it, along with his experience on medical mission trips, gelled nicely with the goals of the organization. Together, they looked to not only provide services in developing areas, but also create an infrastructure that would eventually allow those destinations to be self-sufficient.

Last year, Kempf’s efforts received recognition in the documentary film “Open Hearts,” which tracked a mission trip to Haiti. The finished product, both uplifting and agonizing, showcased an international team of doctors choosing from hundreds of potential patients a dozen who would receive lifesaving care.

“There are kids who are going to die before we come back. That’s the reality of it,” Kempf said. “At the end of the day, our job is to provide help for those that we can and have a little bit of faith that we make the right choices.”

Kempf’s role on the trips, and well documented in the film, is to coordinate the many moving parts involved in bringing an international team together for a relatively short time period to treat critically ill patients. He also managed to sneak in a game of Candyland with one of the children. For his efforts, the film – available at openheartsfilm.com – cites Kempf as a producer, something that came as a surprise to him.

“I certainly wasn’t a film producer, other than I showed up,” he said.

After his retirement, Kempf planned to volunteer his medical expertise, however, a recent ailment has him on immunosuppressant medication, limiting his potential avenues of service during the pandemic. He still volunteers in other ways, and he plans to one day return to mission trips and other medical service.

“I’m still incredibly hopeful that someday I will get back,” he said. “The way we get better, the way our country can really make life better for all of us, is to raise all of us up together. To have community involvement and civic improvement starts at the bottom up.”

Alumni Reunite to Help Global Vaccine Efforts

Truman has been the home of the bulldogs for more than 100 years. In 1915, the mascot was selected by students to represent the school because of its perseverance and ability to hold on and fight until the very end. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that two Bulldogs are currently leading the effort to help the nation – and the world – defeat a pandemic.

Rachel Humphrey (’95) and Bryan Heartsfield (’92) are two key players in the fight against the coronavirus. Humphrey, an Army Colonel, is the Chief of Plans for the COVID-19 Countermeasures Acceleration Group. Through his role with the Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Heartsfield is the Strategic National Stockpile lead public health advisor. In short, the two are working together out of Washington, D.C., to make sure everyone on the planet has access to a vaccine.

Truman ROTC was the first outfit to bring the duo together. Heartsfield was a senior cadet when Humphrey came in as a freshman. Their time at the University only overlapped one year, but their paths crossed again when their military careers had them both in Kuwait in 1999. They have remained friends ever since, but neither was prepared to see them brought together for the biggest global health initiative in a generation.

“I was briefing during a morning ‘stand-up’ national coordination call from the Vaccine and Therapeutics Operations Center where all of the leaders on site gather and update federal partners across the nation using a conference line,” Heartsfield said. “She was standing in the room. What a small world. To both be assigned to a national-level response out of a certain room in a certain building in Washington, D.C., was just shocking.”

Fate had reunited the Truman alumni. Heartsfield, who started working for the CDC after a decorated career as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army, was selected for his role because of his experience leading national-level responses such as Ebola outbreaks in Africa, Zika in Puerto Rico and numerous hurricanes in the United States. Humphrey was rotated in to relieve the previous Department of Defense team. As the Chief of Plans, she synchronizes planning efforts across multiple Department of HHS agencies, White House staff, jurisdictions and federal entities to ensure a fully integrated operation, which makes the former freshman cadet the boss of her friend and senior cadet.

“Who would have thought that two Truman alumni would be leading the way during one of the most important public health response efforts in history?” Humphrey said. “It’s a credit to the types of people that Truman graduates.”

The Strategic National Stockpile purchases the materials to create and assemble kits with all the components needed to provide the COVID-19 vaccination. The kits are then distributed throughout the country in order to stem the tide of the virus. Since the inception of Operation Warp Speed and now the follow-on operation called the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, more than 600 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been delivered to the American public since Dec. 14, 2020 when the first delivery was made. In addition, nearly 72% of all adults are fully vaccinated, more than 47 million booster doses have been administered and more than 6.3 million pediatric doses have been administered.

“Vaccines can take anywhere from three to five years from inception to approval,” Heartsfield said. “We did it in just over a year, and even though it felt slow, today you can get a vaccine just by walking into most pharmacy stores.”

As the vaccine has become readily available in the U.S., Humphrey’s and Heartsfield’s team has started to spread its efforts across the globe. As of December 2021, 101 countries have received more than 146 million doses from the U.S. to help get their populations vaccinated.

“It is truly rewarding to support those in need regardless of where they live,” Humphrey said. “Not since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has the world suffered from such a deadly pandemic. That death toll was estimated to between 20 million to 50 million people, and to be able to be a part of the national, now global, effort to keep that from repeating is intense, unrelenting and more than anything, humbling.”

Truman’s vision statement calls for its graduates to be “citizen-leaders committed to service” who can “offer creative solutions to local, state, national and global problems.” Humphrey and Heartsfield are the living embodiment of that sentiment. Their work evokes pride in the University’s alumni base, and the collaboration of the civilian and military fields to serve humankind across the world emboldens a sense of patriotism on a level unseen in decades.

“Not since WWII, has the industrial base of the United States mobilized under a common goal at this scale, and we, the United States of America, really are sharing with the world,” Heartsfield said. “Other nations are also benefiting from industry, medical and other professions that supported this effort. What we are living in right now is, in fact, history. Our grandchildren and their children will study this moment in time and ask us what it was like.”

With the vaccine accessible to anyone age five and up that wants one, the team has turned its focus on development, manufacturing and distribution of therapeutics. The Countermeasures Acceleration Group has delivered upwards of 3.6 million courses and continues to add new therapeutics to the lineup as they get the required FDA and CDC approval.

Preparation to Podium

In his role as lead strength and conditioning coach, Ambrose Serrano helps American athletes reach their full potential.

When the Winter Olympics kick off in Beijing, Ambrose Serrano can be forgiven if he has some sleepless nights. As lead strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), he oversees training plans for as many as 40 athletes, primarily in the winter sports of biathlon, bobsled, luge and skeleton. Working with individuals day in, day out for years to help them reach their goals can be particularly nerve-racking when the only thing left to do is compete.

“Coaching is a personal relationship with athletes, and we are proud, nervous, excited, anxious and any other normal emotion that comes with competition,” he said. “The biggest reward as a coach is when an athlete is able to achieve the goals they set for themselves.”

After working with athletes for more than a decade from his post at the Lake Placid Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in New York, Serrano has helped countless athletes in pursuit of their dreams.

“This is the most enjoyable part of my role as a strength and conditioning coach,” he said. “The on-the-floor coaching and personal communication I have with the athletes is an irreplaceable aspect of my role with the USOPC.”

To do his job effectively, Serrano not only trains with athletes five to six days per week, he also stays current on the most up-to-date research in the field and collaborates with other coaches and colleagues to promote sport-science initiatives that support athlete wellness and performance. He also takes into account they are individuals with their own lives and needs.

“Programming training plans and coaching athletes requires consistent and frequent communication between coach and athlete to determine what the best approach for each athlete may be as an individual,” Serrano said. “All areas of an athlete’s life need to be considered when optimizing their training. This may include the specifics of what they are doing in the weight room or on the track, but also what their work schedule looks like, their commute to/from training, or any other activity that would not normally be under the umbrella of training.”

Another aspect of the job is travel, particularly to World Cups, the World Championships and the Olympic Games. Serrano’s role shifts a little by the time the team arrives to compete.

“Once the athletes are preparing to compete, it is just that: preparing to compete. There is no more development,” he said. “The Olympics is an all-hands-on-deck mentality. Any capacity in which I can assist athletes, coaches or Team USA, I will be available to assist.”

It was at this time during the 2018 Olympics in South Korea when Serrano had one of the most memorable moments of his career. After helping an athlete warm up for the men’s luge event, he went on to take silver, the first medal in the event in the history of USA Luge.

“It was a big one. I sprinted down the mountain to get to the bottom to be a part of all this excitement,” he said. “It was quite the experience.”

Excitement over the luge is something Serrano never expected while growing up in Carlinville, Illinois. He knew he wanted to work with top athletes, and after completing his degree in exercise physiology from Truman in 2009, he went on to earn a master’s degree in sport physiology and performance from East Tennessee State University. He then worked his way up from a USOPC intern into his current position as lead strength and conditioning coach.

“I grew up in the Midwest, so the winter sports were less popular since I was surrounded by corn fields, not mountains,” Serrano said. “It was not until I started working with the USOPC that I had a true understanding and appreciation of the Olympic movement.”

Serrano was surprised to learn fans in Europe tailgate at events like the biathlon just like Americans would for a football game. It is one of the many things he has come to respect about the Winter Games and its athletes.

“I never really realized these were sports that had a full competitive season each year, even in a non-Olympic year,” he said. “Olympic sports pose a unique atmosphere, different than other sports. The athletes do not just represent a team, but Team USA, and having the opportunity to provide support to athletes while striving to be the best in the world is a special one.”

Destined to Serve

Connecting with faculty helped Calaneet Balas on her journey to CEO and president of The ALS Association.

As internet fads go, the Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the most memorable. The perfect combination of an easy-to-do, yet still uncomfortable stunt, all done in the name of a good cause. Even those who did not personally participate likely know someone who did. People who had no clue what ALS is suddenly became aware, and many more opened their wallets in support. For alumna Calaneet Balas (’97), who serves as the CEO and president of The ALS Association, the lightening-in-a-bottle phenomenon is having long-term impact and giving her hope for the future.

“Money drives progress. When you put money into research you get answers, and then you follow the things that are promising,” Balas said. “I really see the amount of progress in the number of phase two and phase three clinical trials compared to where we were before the Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Balas joined The ALS Association in 2016, two years after the viral sensation, but she is managing its exciting results that come with great opportunities and great challenges. She estimates late-phase clinical trials have nearly quadrupled in recent years, an unusually significant amount of progress.

“Things like the Challenge are good because they help with awareness, and that opens the door for a deeper conversation,” she said.   

In a career dedicated to public health advocacy, Balas is prepared to have those deeper conversations on a number of topics. She also served as the chief executive officer of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, in addition to leadership roles with the Arthritis Foundation and the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations. As a trusted voice in public health, she has testified before Congress and spoken with major news outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post and NBC Nightly News. Interestingly enough, her life may have taken a drastically different path if not for a call from a former professor.

After earning her degree in exercise science from Truman, the native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did a post-graduate internship in St. Louis. She was contemplating a trip through Europe when Michael Bird, chair and professor of exercise science, encouraged her to pursue a graduate program at the University of Memphis. His connections put her on a path to a full scholarship while she earned a master’s degree in human movement science and education.

“I couldn’t have done that on my own,” she said. “He reached out and said, ‘you’re not going traipsing around Europe; you’re too smart for that.’ I owe him a great deal of gratitude for mentoring me in that direction.”

Balas also added an MBA from Herriot-Watt University to her credentials, but her career focus has remained on helping others, not on titles.

“I sometimes call myself the accidental leader,” she said. “I try to get out of the C-suite and I get pulled back into it. For me, it’s not about being an administrator, it’s about really being able to have an impact.”

The ALS Association has been making an impact since its inception in 1985. Unfortunately, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one of the world’s most complicated and debilitating ailments. A progressive disease of the nervous system, ALS patients see reductions in muscle functionality, eventually inhibiting the ability to move, communicate or even swallow, all while cognitive awareness remains intact. Effected individuals essentially become trapped in their own body.

“It’s probably most of our worst nightmares,” Balas said.

According to Balas, ALS is not as rare as many might think. Its true devastation comes from its rapidity. Treatments that slow down progression could increase survival rates, and advances in technology have made life more manageable for afflicted individuals. While every advance is welcomed, Balas will not be satisfied with progress alone.

“My eye is always on the prize of a cure,” she said. “It’s an honor to try to fight for this community and fight for people and their families who are trying to deal with this. The days can be hard, but my days are no harder than theirs. They keep me going. I won’t give up on them.”

Homeward Bound

Utilizing a career in professional sports, Angel McGee is making an impact in her hometown of Kansas City.

Angel McGee is Kansas City through and through – Gates and LC’s are her barbecue destinations of choice – and since her return to the City of Fountains after graduating from Truman, she has worked to make her hometown better every day.

“My ultimate passion is to be able to give back to the city that raised me through philanthropic efforts and community involvement,” she said.

As the manager of community partnerships and events with the Kansas City Royals, McGee (’12) provides development, fundraising and administrative support to Royals Charities – the team’s foundation – as well as for the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy. If that were not enough, she is also an advisory board member of WIN For KC, a KC Champions board member for Teach For America, a member of the Kauffman Foundation Education Cohort and she works with the Tyrann Mathieu Foundation.

“I have had one amazing opportunity after another present itself through my various roles within the sports industry, specifically with the Royals and Chiefs organizations,” McGee said. “It has been even more rewarding to be an integral part of the impact the organization has had within the Kansas City community.”

Royals Charities supports children, education, youth baseball and softball field renovations, and military families in and around the Kansas City area. In 2020, the Royals Respond Fund was created to address food insecurity and other urgent needs related to the pandemic. To date, Royals Charities has put more than $18 million toward philanthropic endeavors in the area.

It comes as no surprise McGee found a career that enables her to empower youth through sports. Some of her fondest memories from childhood include watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls with her father and grandmother. As McGee studied communication at Truman, she dreamed of a career in broadcasting, working as an analyst and reporter for ESPN. After getting her foot in the door with two part-time positions with the Royals and Chiefs, she parlayed the opportunity into a successful career.

“I initially started as a mascot assistant with the Royals, and that position continued to open up doors to multiple positions along the way,” she said. “It’s been a humbling and reaffirming journey because it solidifies the notion that hard work and commitment really do pay off.”

For a Kansas City native, working in professional sports for the past decade has provided some extra special moments, including a close up view of two World Series, two Super Bowls and two titles for her hometown teams.

“The feeling is truly indescribable,” McGee said. “Growing up in Kansas City, it was always Chiefs, Royals and barbecue, so to be able to work for both sports franchises has been an incredible honor.”

As her career path keeps trending on an upward trajectory, McGee may one day be watching games from the C-suite. She has her sights set on being an executive with a franchise, and in keeping with her nature, she would use the opportunity to benefit others.

“I want to be a role model to the next generation of youth, especially for girls who look like me, to show them that there’s more to the sports industry than solely being an athlete,” she said.