Family physician focuses on community, care of rural hometown
As much as Jennifer Bacani McKenney enjoyed growing up in the rural community of Fredonia, Kansas, she was certain she would one day move away from the Midwest, a plan she hoped to realize right after high school—or at the very least, once she graduated from college.
“I actually thought every step of the way that I would leave Kansas, quite honestly,” she admits.
Not only did McKenney stay in the Sunflower State and earn her bachelor’s and medical degrees from KU, but she also returned to her beloved hometown to practice family medicine alongside her father, Dr. O.C. Bacani. “I was born in the hospital where I work today,” McKenney, c’02, m’06, says with a laugh. “I guess I loved it so much that I decided to move back.”
The idea of returning to Fredonia, a quiet town of about 2,500 people, didn’t cross McKenney’s mind until midway through her residency, when she called her father to express surprise that no one in her hometown had reached out with employment opportunities. As she explained to him that she was considering out-of-state options, “He kind of freaked out,” McKenney recalls. “The hospital CEO called me the next day and said, ‘I thought you were just going to come here.’”
In the 12 years since joining her father in private practice, McKenney has established strong roots in her southeast Kansas community, serving as a family physician, health officer for the city and Wilson County and school board president. She created the Fredonia Medical Academy, a two-week program that introduces high school students to the medical profession, and founded the Fredonia Area Community Foundation, a charitable organization that funds vital programs and services.
In recognition of her community spirit, McKenney in March was named Rural Health Practitioner of the Year by the National Rural Health Association, an honor that celebrates health care providers who dedicate their lives to improving the well-being of those in rural communities.
“I think it’s an important thing to happen to someone like me,” McKenney says of the distinction. “I hope that people see that someone like me—a young Filipino-American, the daughter of immigrants and a small-town girl—is not your stereotypical small-town doctor. I hope they realize that anybody can do this and be someone who makes a difference.”
Though McKenney is grateful for the recognition, she admits that at times she felt like an outsider in her hometown as community support wavered during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past year, as she and local health department officials planned Fredonia’s pandemic response, some residents grew increasingly angry at the recommendations she made, such as wearing masks, remaining physically distant from others and limiting the
size and location of social gatherings. McKenney remembers hearing calls for her resignation, as well as receiving harassing messages on social media.
“It became hard because those same people that were saying things on social media or saying things in the community, those were people that I knew growing up and people I had taken care of in the office,” she says. “They let me take care of them and their families for the last decade, but all of a sudden they didn’t trust me anymore to keep them safe.”
McKenney is quick to point out that the majority of residents were understanding of her role during the pandemic, which fueled her determination to continue leading the community as its health official. “That was the reason I kept going,” she continues. “Those were the people that I kept fighting really hard for, even when there were those angry voices out there. It was a tough time for everybody. Some people have to be angry at someone because they can’t be angry at a virus. I was the obvious target.”
While McKenney remains committed to keeping everyone safe as new COVID threats emerge, the physician who jokingly refers to herself as “a people-connecting family doc doing cool stuff for the future of Fredonia” hasn’t lost sight of her ultimate goal: to break down the stereotypes of rural areas and highlight Fredonia as an innovative, growing community with a promising future.
“There’s so much that’s good about a rural community that I refuse to fall into the idea that all small towns are just going to wither away and die,” she says. “I can’t let it happen because that’s my home. I see the love and the power and the passion of all the people in our community, and I know that’s not our fate. And if I can help it be something even better, if we can continue growing, then that’s what I want to do.”
Images courtesy Jennifer Bacani McKenney