Brothers Kendall ’10 and Kamal Smith ’14
Brothers Kendall ’10 and Kamal Smith ’14
A distinct pair of paths—and perspectives—in healthcare
BY HANNAH VAN SICKLE
When Kendall Smith ’10 chose to play the baritone euphonium under the tutelage of Dr. James Criswell in the SSSAS band, it’s unlikely he saw the off-the-beaten track brass instrument as symbolic of the unique path he would ultimately forge in healthcare. In fact, the aspect of humility within success has been integral to his journey for as long as he can remember — which means he’s hardly one to toot his own horn.
“It wasn’t a lightbulb moment,” Kendall says of deciding to pursue nurse anesthesia, rather a converging of myriad moments. His initial interest in medicine was piqued as a young person when several members of his family had to overcome health challenges by undergoing extensive surgical procedures. “Seeing the compassion offered to them really opened my eyes to the human aspect of healthcare,” he recalls. With science and math as his strong suits, he was motivated to “go for the best.” After an initial search of the best nursing schools (ranked by U.S. News & World Report) he aimed for the University of Pennsylvania which was in the top five.
“I really wanted to identify a school where I would be able to challenge myself and get the most out of a nursing education,” Kendall says. After a successful undergrad experience, rounded out in research and coupled with rigorous options like business classes at Wharton, the unique blend of opportunities called him back to Penn Nursing for grad school (which was ranked #1 for nursing at the time). There, Kendall embarked upon a challenging three-year journey of anesthesia training that combined his critical care nursing background with the opportunity to pursue the pharmaceutical and physiological aspects he sought in a career. Kendall recalls shadowing in an operating room, watching a patient get put to sleep, and thinking: “Wow, that’s really cool!”
Upon his graduation from the Doctor of Nursing Practice – Nurse Anesthesia (DNP-NA) program in 2021, he received a special note from Leslie Williams — his kindergarten teacher — evoking a picture of five-year-old Kendall walking into SSSAS for the very first time. “Seeing that message was a very cool, full-circle moment,” he says, one that reminds him of how far he has come.
Today, Kendall is a certified registered nurse anesthetist at Atrium Health in Charlotte, N.C. He attributes much of his success to lessons gleaned from his Saints education — chief among them, “learning to be in a community where [we were encouraged] to find commonalities among one another despite our different strengths, interests, and talents.” He has fond memories of hands-on lessons in science classes with Upper School teacher Sam Chan and Middle School teacher Robert Davis, as well as the great leadership shown by Upper School History teacher Bud Garikes, who during Kendall’s time was the Upper School Director. Another name that jumps out while he is reminiscing is Associate Head of School Bob Weiman. “Bob, someone I have kept in touch with until this day, is fantastic,” he says.
As for an overall theme taken from his time at SSSAS? “The discipline of trying to organize and manage a busy schedule while building a full day and interacting with different types of people, while remaining as versatile as possible [in the process].” Kendall cites the sheer number of activities he participated in, from baseball and basketball to band, as helping to shape him. His passion for music persists (he was a DJ while an undergrad, as a way to earn a bit of extra money), and his playlist is packed. “You’ll find a little bit of everything,” he says, from classical music to hip-hop and R&B (he’s a big Kendrick Lamar fan).
Further shaping has come from, “the privilege of having a couple of really great mentors,” Kendall adds, immediately pointing to Dr. Wallena Gould, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer for the Diversity in Nurse Anesthesia Mentorship Program. Her organization’s mission — to inform, empower, and mentor underserved diverse populations as a means of preparing them for a successful career in nurse anesthesia — has inspired Kendall to pay it forward.
“That’s kind of where my stage is now,” he says. “Creating access to those channels of information that weren’t necessarily accessible to me.” In the world of nurse anesthesia, one Kendall calls “a hidden gem,” men comprise more than 45% of the population (as compared with less than 10% of nurses in general); that said, only 12% of CRNAs are People of Color, with only 3% identifying as African American.
Kendall Smith ’10
“Whether or not that is fair, that I might have to meet the challenges of being the only African American person in the room, in the department, in the school — I can’t necessarily change that for myself but hopefully, by walking through these doors, I will be able to change the dynamic for those behind me ”
– KENDALL SMITH
Eventually, Kendall has his eye on joining an academic faculty and working to develop an even greater presence in organizations that promote diversity while increasing exposure to the field. “The numbers are a fact,” he admits, adding “a lack of healthcare workforce diversity plays out in health disparities, and pairing the two creates a sense of responsibility,” he says, to use his specific skill set and create change for the better — something that motivates him to show up and be his best self, every single day.
“Whether or not that is fair, that I might have to meet the challenges of being the only African American person in the room, in the department, in the school — I can’t necessarily change that for myself but hopefully, by walking through these doors, I will be able to change the dynamic for those behind me,” he says, noting that a shift is already underway. The numbers that exist today are better than those his mentors saw which, to Kendall, is progress but just a start. “I’m striving to push down one more domino…with integrity…while having fun…and while also maintaining my sense of self and representing my community (of which SSSAS is a part) and my family,” which includes a younger brother who, while in a different field, is aligned with Kendall’s overarching goal: to carve a career path in healthcare that positively impacts as many people as possible.
As a third-year dental student, Kamal Smith ’14 is doing just that. At present, the DDS Candidate at the UNC Adams School of Dentistry is busy seeing patients five days a week in clinical rotations. His inherent interest in healthcare emerged early on. Growing up, Kamal gravitated toward math and science classes and figured the most impactful way to use these strengths was to help others. Following his freshman year at Duke University, he participated in the Summer Medical & Dental Education Program at the Duke University School of Medicine. “The seminar on dentistry really grabbed my attention for a number of reasons,” remembers Kamal. He was initially struck by the simultaneous dearth of healthcare providers in underserved communities and providers who share demographic similarities with individuals in high-need, minority communities. Kamal was intrigued by the autonomy dentistry provides, namely being poised to shape his practice to reflect his goals and create an impactful environment. Ultimately, he was hooked by the preventive and interactive nature of dentistry. Dentists can stave off the spread of disease to the rest of the body by addressing conditions that present first in the mouth. Kamal was drawn to the ability to develop relationships with patients and whole families throughout their lives. That same summer, when shadowing dentists in the field, Kamal made two additional observations: the dentists he met loved what they did and they had a good work-life balance. “I was intrigued, and I haven’t looked back since!”
Kamal Smith ’14
Currently the president elect of the National Dental Association, Kamal Smith says the position has allowed him to “advance the field and make it more equitable and accessible to all those who are interested.”
Suffice it to say, he has a keen eye for detail — something Kamal attributes to his time at SSSAS. “Mrs. Geiger, my Upper School math teacher, was so organized. She really encouraged and helped me to come up with a study plan and turn something, that at first was very challenging, into one of my strengths,” he recalls. Kamal participated in football, basketball, soccer, baseball, and track and field and found that preparation leading to success was consistently an underlying spirit of the environment in all the sports he played. This mindset of practicing as if it were the game — whether presenting a workshop or refining his technique in the skills lab — is a life lesson Kamal carries with him, one that permeates myriad arenas.
Chief among his goals at present is making an impact in multiple spaces while still in school. For Kamal, this translates to participating in organizations such as the Student National Dental Association. He joined SNDA at the local level his first year. Last year he got involved on the regional level as a coordinator, and he is currently the president elect on the national level — a position that has allowed him to “advance the field and make it more equitable and accessible to all who are interested.” In this vein, he also serves as the executive director of The Visionary Institute, a nonprofit he founded in 2020 to increase educational and career opportunities for underrepresented young men and women who are contemplating college, transitioning into graduate school, or entering the workforce.
He calls the endeavor, “a mixture of both paying forward the support I received, and being that person for others I wish I would have had through the graduate school process,” he says. Kamal cites programs such as Johns Hopkins CTY Scholars (a four-year scholarship and advising program aimed at helping underrepresented high school students achieve at top levels) coupled with the mentorship of his SSSAS College Counselor Mr. Tim Doyle, who led him directly toward the right resources throughout the college process. Subsequently, an undercurrent that ripples through his advocacy work is educating others about the disparity that exists among programs and resources while working to increase access.
Despite the full plate, Kamal is even-keeled and cognizant of the task at hand: finding balance. “To bring my full self to my work environment, to be able to provide care for patients, requires me to take time for myself and my passions outside of dentistry,” he underscores. To that tune, Kamal loves to exercise (he goes to the gym pretty regularly) and enjoys watching and playing basketball during his free time. He’s also a huge music lover — whether listening to live music, attending concerts or looping tracks (Kendall passed all his DJ equipment down to Kamal the summer before he started at Duke). “He taught me a couple things, and I took it from there,” Kamal says. The four-year difference between the two precluded collaborating — something he hopes to make space for in the future.
“I’m definitely leaving the door open,” Kamal says of the potential for working together, a sentiment with which Kendall concurs: “I hope to get the chance to work with my brother,” either on dental procedures that require anesthesia or as a consultant. This shared desire is testament to the role family has played in their respective journeys to date. The siblings point to their parents, Maurice and Linda Smith, as teaching them the importance of working hard to achieve their goals.
“It took getting up early, it took staying at school late, and that sacrifice still motivates me,” says Kamal, whose parents woke at 5 a.m. to cook breakfast and make the 45-minute drive from Prince George’s County, Md., to drop the boys at school before going on to work. This was the routine, day in and day out, that positioned him “to reach his dreams, to have the best opportunity.”
Kendall has been focused on goals since graduating from high school; for the moment, he is keen on being present. “I want to help people, and I want to preserve a sense of enjoying the process while I’m going about it,” he says. He notes accomplishments — such as being awarded the Supplement to Promote Diversity in Health-Related Research grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in 2020, part of the National Institutes of Health — as reason to take pause. He’s certain this approach will allow him to remain energized while finding the passionate space he’s best suited for.
And Kamal? He’s taking things one step at a time lest he get daunted focusing on the final destination. “Focus on laying one brick at a time,” he advises — no matter what task is at hand. “Let that build, day after day, and you end up getting where you want to be.”