INA, Ill. (Nov. 28, 2015) – Two decades after he pitched for Rend Lake College’s baseball team and took the floor as a Warrior for the basketball team, Dr. Brian Kern is again making headlines at his alma mater. The 1994 RLC graduate is now an orthopedic surgeon at the Orthopedic Institute of Western Kentucky, located in Paducah, Ky., and has been named the RLC Foundation Alumnus of the Year for 2015. He will be awarded the honor during the Foundation Annual Dinner on Thursday, Dec. 3.
Kern came to RLC in the Fall of 1992 as a member of Coach Tim Wills’ first recruiting class for RLC’s Men’s Basketball team. Wills, now RLC’s Athletic Director, was one individual who nominated Kern for the award – which Kern says is a special surprise on top of an already honoring award.
“I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when Shawna contacted me. I assumed she was calling me as a patient, I was honored when I learned I had been selected,” said Kern. “Coach Wills nominating me is also special. I played for him from 1992 through 1994 and for him to think of me over 20 years later as worthy of this honor means a lot to me.”
A native to Southern Illinois, Kern grew up just minutes from RLC in rural Franklin County. He attended Ewing Grade School and Benton Consolidated High School (BCHS) before becoming a Warrior. His father, retired president of the college Mark Kern, brought Brian and his four siblings to campus long before he attended his first class.
“I grew up only 15-20 minutes away from Rend Lake. My dad worked there for 39 years, so I spent a lot of time there. I remember basketball and baseball camps as a kid and using the gymnasium all the time,” said Kern. “Every member of my family has utilized Rend Lake College in some capacity. It has been a part of the fabric of our family.”
In fact, this year’s Annual Dinner won’t be Kern’s first to attend either. This year will obviously be different, he said, because he’ll be the one to speak about how RLC has impacted his education and his career path.
“I have been to the Foundation's Annual Dinner. To be the one receiving this award is a special honor,” he said. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to speak about what Rend Lake College has done for me. The doors it opened and the opportunities it provided me have been numerous. I used it as a stepping stone and I think there are many other students to whom Rend Lake College appeals for the same reasons.”
Specifically, Kern said he hopes to appeal to student athletes with big dreams, much like himself in the early 90s. His goal was to play baseball at the Division I college level and end up in the Major Leagues, but when he didn’t receive Division I offers out of high school, he decided to work on his game, while receiving a quality education, right in his own backyard.
“Attending RLC and playing two sports helped me improve myself academically and athletically,” said Kern. “After high school, I had Division II and III opportunities but I decided to go to RLC so I could continue to play two sports and work on my grades. I was able to gain size and strength and develop as a pitcher while attending a local college and saving on tuition. This resulted in an opportunity to be awarded a Division 1 scholarship in baseball – one of my ultimate goals.”
As a two-sport athlete, Kern spent all his free time pitching for Coach Rich Campbell’s baseball team – where he made All-Conference – and as a full-time starting point guard for Coach Wills’ basketball team. While at RLC, he also maintained a 4.0 grade point average and was named Academic All-American by the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Though it seems like the future-doctor had it all figured out, Kern remembers thinking of what he considered small failures, thoughts he no longer entertains today as an orthopedic surgeon. The Division I scholarship in baseball led him to St. Louis University (SLU), where he intended to enroll in the Physical Therapy program. It wasn’t until after he accepted the scholarship that he found out he wasn’t eligible to enroll in the program as a transfer student.
“That was where I ended up going through a series of small failures,” said Kern. “I had perfect grades and a scholarship to play baseball where I was told I could get into the physical therapy program, but they ended up not accepting transfer students. Had I known, I could’ve gone other places, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
“That was when my Rend Lake College chemistry professor, John Fisher, asked me to consider a career as a physician,” said Kern. “John drove me around Southern Illinois meeting with physicians in various fields. With his help, and the help of Dr. Charles Neal in Mt. Vernon, I decided I liked the profession and wanted to pursue a career as a physician. I wanted to interact with people and have a chance to help those who needed help.”
“John Fisher was pretty important to my career in this regard. Mike Mullins, former English professor, was also an important person in my life while at Rend Lake,” said Kern. “My sophomore year after a basketball tournament, Mike drove me through the night to Florida to meet up with a baseball team. John and Mike, much like the rest of the instructors at RLC, cared greatly about their students inside and outside of the classroom and went the extra mile to help aid in influencing student's lives. The instructors were all very caring individuals who took their jobs very seriously.”
Instead of physical therapy, Kern completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in Pre-Med Biology at SLU, and before medical school became a reality, he was offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play professional baseball. In 1997, he was drafted by the Oakland Athletics organization where he played in the Minor Leagues for three years. While with the Athletics, Kern was named the Dave Stewart Community Service Player of the Year.
“I had the opportunity to play in the Minor Leagues, but unfortunately was released at the beginning of my third season. I know now that everything happens for a reason, but at the time I considered that another failure. When I didn’t make it in baseball, with the goal to play in the Major Leagues, it was a failed endeavor for me, but it set the stage for where I’m at today,” said Kern.
He then returned to Southern Illinois to attend SIU’s School of Medicine from 1999-2003. He completed his orthopedic surgery residency at SIU in Springfield from 2003-2008, during which time he also served as a Captain in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Kern then accepted a sports medicine fellowship at the Southern California Orthopedic Institute in Los Angeles, Calif., where he worked specifically in sports medicine, arthroscopy, and reconstructive surgery on shoulders and knees. He was the first fellowship-trained surgeon in arthroscopy and sports medicine in the Paducah area.
“I wanted to come back to Southern Illinois, so I called the CEO of the Orthopedic Institute of Southern Illinois, Greg Thompson. There was not an opening for a sports medicine physician within their group, but he asked if I would be interested in starting a group in the Western Kentucky as a division of the Southern Illinois group,” said Kern. “I joined up with two other doctors, Dr. Clint Hill and Dr. Brandon Strenge, and with the help of the Southern Illinois group, we founded the Orthopedic Institute of Western Kentucky in 2009.”
Since that time, the orthopedic group has grown to ten physicians and has over 100 employees. The Orthopedic Institute of Western Kentucky resides in a newly constructed building in Paducah, Ky. The Orthopedic Institute also recently completed the opening of a new ambulatory surgery center in Massac County, which is a $6 million project in partnership with Massac County Hospital. Kern said, the Center hopes to employ around 25 people and provide access to quality care to lower Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky patients. Annually, the institute injects more than $3.3 million into the local economy.
At the Orthopedic Institute, Kern serves as the Chairman of the Board and the Medical Director of the OI Surgery Center, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the OI of Southern Illinois and Western Kentucky.
“I enjoy working with people who have a problem that is negatively impacting their lives and helping them to fix that problem,” said Kern of his day-to-day activities. “To see people who are not doing well, and then to see them months later with a smile on their face and a new lease on life is extremely rewarding.”
These values of wanting to help others stem from a strong and influential family, Kern says, specifically from his mother, Lana, and father.
“The most influential people to me are my parents. My mother Lana is an inspiration to me. She currently is battling ovarian cancer. She has fought through multiple rounds of chemotherapy, brain surgery, and a trip to a third world country to fight off her cancer. All the while, she continues to put the interest of others first and never complains or feels sorry for herself, but continues to fight,” Kern said. “She has shaped me by instilling me with good values and has influenced me to be fair and kind in the way I treat others. My father also had a big impact on my life. He worked two jobs including his career at the college and managing and running a farm, all while providing for five children. He taught me the value of hard work. My older brother, Eric, was also a role model to me. He was a top student in his class at Southern Illinois University and at Washington University’s MBA School. He set the bar pretty high, and I always looked up to him and tried to follow in his footsteps.”
Through this award, Kern said he hopes to be able to inspire other students and athletes to consider the community college route. As an MD, Kern encourages high school and college students to observe surgeries and regularly visits with high schools in Kentucky to provide interested students access to someone in the medical profession.
“What I really want to convey is I went to Rend Lake College and improved on a lot of different aspects in my life. In doing so, I obtained a scholarship to an excellent university, played college and professional sports, and eventually was able to receive acceptance into medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon – RLC was the first step in making this possible,” he said.
When asked about recommending RLC to future students, Kern replied with one word: absolutely.
“I encourage students to consider community college. It creates new opportunities and you are not strapped with student debt. Attending Rend Lake College was certainly the right move for me in starting my career,” said Kern.
Kern and his wife Summer currently reside in Paducah, where they are raising three children of their own, a son Caden, 9, and two daughters, Charli, 5, and Ellsie, 2. They are expecting a baby boy in March.
Bullard said she couldn’t have asked for a better nominee than Kern, who represents what Rend Lake College graduates can do. She added she’s looking forward to the Annual Dinner when Kern will speak about his experiences at RLC.
“When we received the letters of recommendation for Dr. Kern to be our Alumnus of the Year, I knew he would stand tall in a field of Alumnus that represent the best of the best RLC Warriors. His resumé is not only impressive, but inspiring. His character is strong and he has a talent for connecting with people, no matter their walk in life. He exemplifies what we want our students to see as ‘achievable’ with hard work and a start at RLC,” said Bullard. “I’m thankful our committees selected Brian as our 2015 Alumnus of the Year. I know him personally to be an incredibly skilled surgeon, a strong family man, and an excellent model for what a community college education can help students achieve.”
In addition to Dr. Kern’s Alumnus of the Year award, several other individuals will be recognized for their support of RLC and the Foundation. Progress updates and special announcements will also be made throughout the evening. The Annual Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, at the Mt. Vernon Holiday Inn. For more information, contact the Foundation at 618-437-5321, Ext. 1214 or at [email protected].