Dr. Beverley Ketel: Surgeon who brought transplant surgery to Peoria, IL, reflects on a fulfilling career

Dr. Ketel

Dr. Ketel (left) honored at her retirement from her career as a transplant surgeon. At the podium is Karen Welborn, MSN, manager, transplant services, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.

One of the first events Beverley L. Ketel, MD, FACS, attended following her retirement this spring was the dedication of a new memorial at Rutherford Park near the OSF (Order of Saint Francis) Saint Francis Medical Center, Peoria, IL. This space is filled with flowers, shrubs, and other carefully curated flora, planted in recognition of all the tissue and organ donors that have helped the Level I trauma and tertiary care center become the top donor hospital in Illinois.

Tucked between all the tributes was another thank you, this one honoring Dr. Ketel for her work as a transplantation surgeon, 1984–1990 and 2002–2015, with the medical center and the Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network. The inscribed paver stone was placed in the garden and reads: “Dr. Beverley Ketel—33 years of dedication to donation & transplantation.” During the 12-year gap in her service at Saint Francis, she served as chief of transplantation at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and remained there until her children had grown and moved out of the house.

Making dreams come true

“She actually had a better feel for what was needed more than the typical transplantation surgeon,” said Jerry Anderson, chief executive officer of the Gift of Hope from 1987 to 2013. “When I first met Beverley, she was running her own organ donation organization. That certainly speaks to her as an advocate for patients.”

Hospital archives note the tandem successes shared by the hospital and Dr. Ketel since she joined the staff in 1984, particularly in July of that year, when she started the hospital’s kidney transplant program. With this act, she made “a medical dream a reality,” as noted by an article published in the hospital’s history retrospective publication.

The next milestone for Dr. Ketel and the medical center occurred on July 14, 1985, when she performed the first kidney transplant in the Peoria area. This 5.5-hour operation was the first in what would become an estimated 3,700 procedures completed at the Peoria facility by 2014. Dr. Ketel would again make history at the medical center by performing the first pancreas and kidney-pancreas transplant surgeries in September 2002. She assisted in another landmark procedure in 2011 by performing the center’s 1,000th transplant.

Overcoming obstacles

Many health care professionals would consider these benchmarks to be extraordinary achievements for a regional hospital in a rural setting, let alone to occur largely under the leadership of a woman surgeon in the 1980s. Currently boasting 850 physicians and 6,500 employees, OSF Saint Francis also is a member of the Gift of Hope Organ & Tissue Donor Network (originally the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois). It was in central Illinois that Dr. Ketel found the ideal setting for a young woman surgeon launching her career.

U.S. medical culture in the 1980s could be intimidating, “especially for a petite woman in a world most certainly dominated by men,” Dr. Ketel said. “That just meant that I had to work harder, and that’s exactly what I did.”

Dr. Ketel was raised in Eugene, OR, before attending the University of Chicago Medical School, IL. When she applied at the institution, university administrators were actively recruiting medical students specifically from small and rural towns. “I was one of a dozen admitted in a grassroots talent search,” she recalled. “There was a fear that we would not be able to compete with the other students. We all did well.”

In her second year of medical school at the University of Chicago (U of C), she met her husband, Richard, an infectious disease specialist. The couple speculated on whether it was possible to match at the same hospital for their residency training. They did—both at U of C—and then started thinking about taking their relationship to the next level.

“I thought at one point we should keep our marriage secret,” she said. “There were questions whether a wife could devote herself to her husband, a family, and medicine. It was unproven ground. I felt a little under the microscope during my five-year residency.”

She asked a physician mentor if he thought it would be all right to marry. He endorsed the union, and her first two of three children were born during her transplant fellowship.

“Then I started to apply for jobs. It felt like no one wanted to hire me because I was a woman with a young family,” she said. Her husband’s family was from the Kansas City, MO, area, so she settled for a general surgery position that did not include transplantation at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, Kansas City. But eventually she would receive an opportune phone call.

Administrators at OSF Saint Francis wanted the facility to be one of the nation’s first regional hospitals with a transplant program, and they reached out to Dr. Ketel to see if she would lead the program. She accepted eagerly but with some concerns.

“I was excited, but it was also a little frightening as a young surgeon,” she said. “Once I came back to Peoria, I never sensed a problem with me being a woman. The culture changed very quickly in the mid- to late 1980s. It was strictly professional.”

Transplantation history

From a technical standpoint, Dr. Ketel said, kidney transplantation has changed little over the last few decades, but transplantation drugs have certainly evolved. The transplantation success rate was 50 percent in 1984; today, it is 91 percent to 92 percent. This drastic improvement can be attributed to the advent of medicines that help control the immune system, particularly the anti-rejection drug cyclosporin, as well as antibiotics and sophisticated diagnostic equipment such as computed tomography and magnetic resonance imaging.

In addition to immunosuppressants and advances in diagnostic technology, requirements mandating hospital affiliation with organ recovery programs have boosted the transplantation success rate. “Saint Francis embraced organ donation and has been a leading donor hospital for decades—and that’s all because of our community,” she said. “Since the beginning of our donation program, our community has responded well. In fact, their response was so great that our hospital has consistently been the top donation hospital, and continues to hold this honor.”

Dr. Ketel’s hands-on experience organizing the medical center’s first donor donation program afforded her the experience and skill set necessary to work with the Gift of Hope board. “She could look at things from a much higher level. She wanted to help everyone, not just her patients. As a result, Saint Francis has been consistently the top one or two donor hospital [according to data collected through the Gift of Hope Network], and I think a lot of credit goes to her steady force,” Mr. Anderson said.

Dr. Ketel also enjoyed the status of practicing in Midwestern medical circles. With Chicago and its renowned medical institutions less than two hours away, she was pitted into “deep competition and the prestige that comes with it.”

The Saint Francis transplantation program seemed to grow and evolve all on its own, according to Dr. Ketel. “I didn’t realize how poised the community was for this program. We never had to work hard to make this work.” Dr. Ketel further explained that the hospital’s staff and physicians all readily adopted and promoted the transplantation practices required to successfully run the program.

The OSF Saint Francis health care system as a whole has grown as well. It provided health care services to more than 693,000 patients in 2014, and its patient base draws from within 250 miles of Peoria, as well as a three-state region (Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa) for its specialized services, including the transplant program, according to the OSF Saint Francis’s 2014 annual report.* OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Peoria, is the largest of the health care system’s institutions and is host to the Children’s Hospital of Illinois, OSF Heart Hospital, and the Illinois Neurological Institute and is a major teaching affiliate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.

A new beginning

Now, at age 66, Dr. Ketel is carefully considering her “next career.” She knows that she wants to stay in Peoria and help disenfranchised elderly patients secure needed medical attention. “It won’t be medical, but it will be social work. I have not completely decided yet. I’m just going to play this summer and then make a decision.”

Her husband also is retired, and their three adult children are launching their own careers: a daughter as a pediatric internal medicine physician; a son as an attorney; and another son as a database developer.

Since she left Saint Francis in April, there’s been a noticeable lack of stress, a byproduct of no longer dealing with “all of the life and death decisions you have to make every day [in the profession],” she noted.

Yet, Dr. Ketel said it’s “hard not to miss surgery. There are a lot of articles out there about the general unhappiness of surgeons because it can be a hard life. I have worked a lot of hours, and with my husband being a doctor, he has, too. [But] I think if you ask my children, they were all right with everything. This has been the most rewarding career for me. I can’t imagine anything else for me that would be as satisfying. I’ve been very happy.”

*OSF Saint Francis. Annual Report. Available at: annualreport.osfhealthcare.org/. Accessed July 23, 2015.

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