October 2010 cover SCAN"St. Catherine University St. Catherine University
October 2010
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The Doctor is In

Health and Wellness Director Amy Kelly reflects on the importance of exercise, positive thinking and eating Cheetos.


LAST APRIL, DR. AMY KELLY achieved a milestone when she ran the Boston Marathon two months shy of her 40th birthday. She'd had to run an earlier marathon in under three hours and 45 minutes to qualify for the elite event, and although she is clearly proud of the accomplishment, Kelly refuses to reveal her running time, other than to say it was "respectable."

Modesty about athletic achievement might seem an unusual characteristic for a physician whose work as director of the Health and Wellness Center at St. Kate's requires her to preach the benefits of exercise and eating right. But it fits with Kelly's time-tested personal philosophy of practicing good health: "Everything in moderation."

"I'm as likely to eat a handful of Cheetos as an apple," she concedes with a laugh. "I exercise a lot. Running is how I stay sane. If there's a time when I am not in balance in my life, it's when I'm not making time to exercise. I think exercise is vitally important to good health — and it can be as simple as a 20-minute walk."

A summa cum laude graduate from the University of St. Thomas, Kelly performed a residency in pediatrics at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine and later earned a master's in public health at the University of Minnesota. She began work at St. Kate's during her fellowship in adolescent health at the U of M. That experience shaped her decision to forsake more lucrative private practice for the satisfactions — and frustrations — of promoting student health.

What sorts of issues or illnesses do you commonly encounter?
We see a lot of students struggling with depression and anxiety. Often these can be connected to not being able to deal constructively with stress. As student life gets more stressful — whether it's papers and tests or problems with friends and finances — you start to struggle when you aren't equipped to deal with stress.

How do you teach coping skills to students?
Wayne Dyer, who wrote The Power of Intention, says that when people were learning how to build boats, they didn't study why things sank. They studied why they floated. That point of view speaks to resiliency.

We talked a lot about that in my adolescent health fellowship: Where do you get resiliency? Can you teach it? In my work I try to help people tap into their inner wisdom or innate health.

Some universities have started to outsource their health centers. But I think it's vitally important that we have a clinic here on campus. We meet students where they are.

What drew you to specialize in adolescent health?
Adolescents and young adults are at such a pivotal point in their lives. They're making decisions about all sorts of healthcare-related behaviors — from what kind of music they listen to and language they use to whether they decide to be sexually active, drink or use drugs. I feel like I'm making a difference.

I also like being able to help them reframe how they interpret circumstances in their lives or reflect upon decisions they were beating themselves up about. My own children are 6 and 9. I hope that as adolescents they will have people in their lives — teachers, coaches, staff members at school — who will view them as I view my patients, who will help them make good decisions. I won't always be there to decide what's in their lunch boxes.

At St. Kate's opening convocation in September, Penelope Moyers, dean of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health, said: "Health can't be defined by the absence of disease or disability but by joy in living." How do you try to bring joy to your patients at St. Catherine University?
The basic tenet of a philosophy called Health Realization is that you approach people from the standpoint of wellness. Each of us possesses everything we need to be well; sometimes, we've just forgotten how to access it.

Penny's quote is tied to that. You can have a disease or a disability, and that's outside of your control — but you always have inner wisdom, you always have strength. You always have the ability to be joyful. In Western medicine we're taught to look at what's broken or isn't working. Health Realization reframes that perspective to look at what's working.

As a physician, how can you influence your patients' mental health?
By no stretch do I fancy myself a therapist. But we know that how we think absolutely influences how we feel. I don't need to be a psychologist to help my patients understand that. I can help them reframe how they're thinking about an illness, a broken leg or depression. When people are hurt or struggling, their thought process evokes certain feelings. If someone comes in with irritable bowel disease and I can help them better manage their anxious or sad thoughts, it will help improve their abdominal pain or gastrointestinal symptoms.

Alcohol abuse is the stereotypical health issue for college students, and you've recently been appointed to a statewide commission to study the effects of binge drinking on college students. How much is excessive drinking a problem at St. Kate's?
St. Kate's is not a party school. We do have students who drink too much alcohol, but that's not how I'd define the culture of students here.

I talk to students about the health risks of alcohol use — but for young women, I also talk about their overall safety. As soon as you start drinking and your judgment goes down, you put yourself at risk for assaults and unintended sex. As a woman, as a mom, I want students to think about the types of situations they're in.

The Minneapolis campus became tobacco-free in 2008. You helped lead the effort to make the St. Paul campus tobacco-free as of September 1, 2010. Why is this important?
St. Kate's is, and always has been, a role model. Given the depth and breadth of our healthcare programs, it makes sense that we'd be among the first campuses in the nation to lead on this front. Going tobacco-free sends a strong message to our students and the broader community that we're committed to health.

Do these restrictions really change behavior?
If you look at the determinants of behavior, the one thing that has the most impact from a public-health standpoint is the environment. If we can alter or mold environments to encourage more healthy decisions, people are more likely to make those changes.

This is not about punishing the smoker. It's about encouraging healthy behavior that benefits the whole community. We're saying that our campuses are tobacco-free. We're not saying people can't go home and smoke.

You are a physician and your husband is an orthopedic surgeon. You have a career and two children. How do you manage it?
I think we do our daughters a disservice when we say: You can have it all. We need to change our expectations of what it all is. There's always a give-and-take, and every person needs to decide what she or he is willing to give up. There are still days when I say I should be home more with my kids. Another part of me can't imagine not doing what I do.

You talk about your work as a way to make a difference. Does that go back to the Catholic faith in which you were raised?
Growing up, we were very involved in our church. But I don't know that I ever framed giving back to the world as part of being Catholic. I do know that practicing in this setting, with the undercurrent of social justice, feels right to me. And being in a Catholic environment feels like home.

Amy Gage is director of marketing and communications at St. Catherine University.

St. Kate’s Q and A Dr. Amy Kelly

Dr. Amy Kelly, director of St. Catherine
University's Health and Wellness Center