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Published in CenterView on April 29, 2013
Jennifer Kennedy
Jennifer Kennedy

PT’s ‘secret weapon’ helps inspire patients

By By Matt Westerfield

Not so long ago when she was a cheerleader in college, Jennifer Kennedy performed a no-handed back flip during the halftime routine of a basketball game and broke her prosthetic leg.

“I came down a little too much on the toes, and it won’t bend like your normal foot will and the pressure was too much, so it snapped in two,” she said.

But that didn’t stop her. She asked her boyfriend at the time to fetch her spare prosthesis from her dorm room and she finished the game.

Now a part-time physical therapist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Kennedy’s college cheering mishap serves as a great example of how her athleticism and can-do attitude have let very little slow her down since having her right leg amputated below the knee when she was 18 years old.

On the contrary, Kennedy said her experiences have inspired her to push herself more and be a more compassionate therapist and active mother and to take on the new challenge of running. Last year, she ran her first 5K race.

Kennedy said she was a very active teenager growing up in the small town of Woodford, Ill. But she wasn’t a runner: Her thing was gymnastics and cheerleading.

During her senior year of high school, what began as a tingling sensation in her foot eventually was diagnosed as a blood clot behind her knee. After a drawn-out effort to dissolve the clot, the decision was made to amputate her lower leg before the knee would be lost, too.

“When I got home (from the hospital), here I was on crutches and all my friends were leaving for college,” she said.

Kennedy had been leaning toward physical therapy since junior high. But she began having doubts before graduation that she really knew how she wanted to spend the rest of her life as a 17-year-old.

She said those doubts disappeared after her amputation.

After earning her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree at St. Ambrose University in Iowa, she moved to Houston, Texas. She attended a 10-week internship at UMMC, and that’s where she met her future husband, Brad Kennedy, a prosthetist for Methodist Rehabilitation Center.

“I had made the move to Texas for fun. I was young and single,” she said. “My plan was to try it for a year or two and move back home, but then this boy started calling me.”

And it turns out, Brad Kennedy also is an amputee, having lost his leg after getting hit by a driver while helping to push a stalled car off the road in 1993. They married in 2006, moved to Mississippi and Jennifer Kennedy joined UMMC as a part-time therapist.

Jennifer in Magee City Park
Jennifer in Magee City Park

Living near Magee, the Kennedys spend most of their workweeks at Wesley Medical Center in Hattiesburg. And now they have two daughters to keep up with as well: 4-year-old Samantha and 20-month-old Christine.

“It’s always an adventure,” Kennedy said of balancing an unusual work schedule with children. “A lot of times I look at my phone the night before, wondering, ‘Where am I supposed to be tomorrow?’”

After her second child, Kennedy said she was ready to get back in shape.

“I needed a way to get active again. I wanted to be able to keep up with my kids,” she said. “I decided that running needed 30 minutes and a pair of shoes — and someone to watch my kids.”
With help from a “Couch to 5K” app on her phone, Kennedy worked her way up to being able to run 3.1 miles and ran her first 5K at last year’s Okatoma Festival. She’s hoping to run another one next month and shave a few minutes off her time.

“I’d never been a runner,” she said. “Everything I’d ever done had been short-distance stuff. Tumbling and gymnastics takes a lot of energy, but it’s a short bursts.

“I’m not going to break any records, but I figure for a 30-year-old mother of two with one leg, it wasn’t too shabby.”

Although she has no hesitation about running in shorts and showing off her prosthesis, as a physical therapist, she calls it her “secret weapon.”

“Sometimes I will strategically decide when to let a patient know,” she said.

With some patients, she’ll volunteer it early on.

“Then I get the patients who don’t really want to work very hard, who think I need to give them a pill to make everything go away. They’ll say, ‘What do you know? You’re young and healthy.’”

That’s when she rolls up her pants leg, and after that, the patient works harder.

“Jennifer provides a unique perspective to our patients as a PT since she has experienced first-hand a life-altering injury,” said Amy Mayhue, assistant director of occupational therapy. “Patients instantly feel a connection with Jennifer.”

Melanie Lauderdale, assistant professor of physical therapy in the School of Health Related Professions, agreed.

“She shows them that they can do whatever they want if they put their mind to it,” Lauderdale said. “I have occasionally asked her to go speak with one of my patients who is struggling with a new amputation, and the patient usually has a new outlook on his or her injury after talking with Jennifer.”

Wendy Creel, a physical therapist who has known Kennedy since she first came to UMMC, simply described her as inspiring.

“I like myself so much better because of the things I’ve had to go through, and push through and grow through,” Kennedy said.