I recently spent some time with Dr. Kevin Means, Chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock. I asked Dr. Means about his life, how he chose his specialty, and how he came to Little Rock from New York City. This is his story:
Kevin Means grew up on Long Island and attended college in Binghamton, NY. The summer after his first year of college he began looking for work to help him pay his way through school. Jobs were few and far between, and only “undesireable” work remained for college students. Kevin heard about a position as a physical therapy assistant at a facility for the disabled. They were having a difficult time recruiting and retaining candidates due to the strenuous work requirements – heavy lifting, assisting patients with exercises, and moving imobile (and sometimes obese) individuals around was not feasible for many people. But Kevin was a tall, strong, African American man – undaunted by the challenges.
The first few days filled him with sadness – young men with spinal cord injuries, elderly people recovering from severe strokes, amputees with traumatic brain injuries – all doing what they could in the gymnasium. Kevin surveyed the patients and took to heart the individual tragedies that had brought each of them there. He observed the physical therapists as they encouraged movement in the imobile, taught people how to use shriveled limbs, and helped amputees use new prostheses to walk again. Over time, he began to see that each life was a beautiful story of triumph over adversity, and his initial sadness melted as he witnessed the daily victories of recovery.
Slowly, Kevin began taking on more responsibility at the facility. He would sometimes offer additional therapy sessions to patients and stayed late in the evening to make sure that everyone had a full day of exercise. Although he had no formal training as a physical therapist, he grew to understand and practice their techniques, and was dearly loved by the patients.
One day Kevin was offered an office job that paid substantially more than the PTA position. He accepted it gladly, but in the afternoons found himself thinking about his friends at the rehab facility. He wondered if the patients were being cared for correctly, if they were recovering well, and if the nurses were strong enough to help the therapists transfer the patients safely. These nagging questions burned in his mind as he filed paperwork and made phone calls. He just couldn’t stop worrying about them.
A few days later, Kevin returned to his position as a PTA in the rehab facility. He had learned that working with disabled men and women was more fulfilling to him than an office job. He spent the next 3 years working there part-time, and developed long lasting friendships with the patients and staff.
When it came time to go to medical school, Kevin promised his friends that he would do all he could to sharpen his therapy skills and research new ways to help them become independent in their daily lives. For this reason, he chose PM&R as his specialty and attended residency at the top-ranked Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). When I asked Kevin why he didn’t stay on at RIC after his residency, he simply said that they didn’t need him. They had plenty of bright, talented physicians who could help to advance the field. Kevin wanted to go where needs were greater, and where his work might bring new hope to those who had very little.
And so Kevin went to Little Rock, Arkansas in the mid ’80’s – to help to build a PM&R program there. He was single – a fact that his friends in Chicago and New York must have called to his attention. But he forged ahead on faith, assuming that he would meet his wife in good time.
Over the past two decades, Kevin has worked tirelessly to grow and establish the PM&R department at UAMS as a center of excellence in rehabilitation medicine. He met his (now) wife while she was working a second job as a clerk at a department store in Little Rock (she is a teacher), and they have 2 lovely children. Kevin took me on a tour of the UAMS facilities which span 3 modern buildings equiped with 2 large swimming pools, beautiful gardens and multiple gymnasiums.
I watched his face as he looked out onto a team of 30+ therapists assisting disabled adults with their goals in a gym. He smiled at the physical therapists and PTAs and I had to wonder if the scene reminded him of his days in Binghamton, and the friendships that gave him the first glimpse of his calling as a physician.
Kevin never did lose sight of his first love: advocating for the needs of the disabled. His career path has taken him from Binghamton to Little Rock – as he steadfastly fulfills his calling as a nurturing healer, working in places where needs are great, and workers are few.This post originally appeared on Dr. Val’s blog at RevolutionHealth.com.