An Interview With Dr. John Kelly

As a further follow up to the events that have transpired since the Obesity Action Coalition brought the humor column by Doctor John Kelly in a recent issue of Outpatient Surgery Magazine, the message from the bariatric surgery community has been loud and clear – this sort of thing will not be tolerated. And I think it is safe to say that message was heard.

SorryI don’t know just how many email messages Doctor Kelly received, but he seemingly replied to them all. Yes, often it was a variation of the same message.. and sometimes it was the same message being sent to numerous people. But to his credit, he did not hide, he did not dodge this, he responded. The “canned responses” however still felt lacking to some people, so I reached out to Doctor Kelly and asked if I could email him some questions and post his answers here for everyone to see. He agreed. Below is a direct copy and paste of this exchange. In an attempt to make it easier to follow, my questions will be in bold while his responses will be in italics.

First of all, thank you for agreeing to this Dr. Kelly. Can you maybe give me a brief bio about yourself? What do you do in your practice, etc?
I was born and raised in Wimington Delaware and attended Columbia Univeristy and Medical School at Univeristy of Cincinnati. I completed residency training at universit of Penn and did a fellowship in Sports Medicine at Temple University. I practice Sports Medicine with a special interest in shoulder and Holistic/Preventative orthopedics.

In some of the emails I’ve seen from you, you allude to having been a stand up comic? When was this? Do you still do so?
I have been doing stand up for years at medical atherings and for the past few years have worked in local comedy clubs in Philedlephia and the Jersey shore.

How did you come to write for Outpatient Surgery Magazine?
I was asked by the editor. Apparently they were in need of a humor column.

Who decides on your column topics, and is there any sort of editorial oversight?
I am able to choose the topics and they are edited by the magazine.

Ok, so obviously, the reason we connected was because of the August 2011 article, a sort of commentary on things a surgeon might have to deal with when encountering “large” patients. From what I could find online you seem to do a lot of work in “sports medicine”, and from some of the items in the article I could tell you weren’t speaking just about “obese” patients, but also the body builder types that pump themselves
up on protein supplements and possibly more. Is that correct?
Yes, i wrote about the very large patients I see – bodybuilders, football players etc which make the surgery more of a challenge.

I used one liners I accrued over the years in comedy to make ‘light’ of the situation. I used very bad judgment and never intended to offend. I think I was running up against a deadline and threw some jokes together in order to get a few laughs.

(and if correct) I think it’s also safe to say that many of those comments were specifically about people who are obese. Given the climate out there today, everything from all the publicity surrounding the “obesity epidemic” and things such as the problem of bullying… was there ever a moment when you were writing this column where you stopped to wonder how such comments would be taken and/or if making such comments was at all a bad idea?
I have used these lines over the years in comedy so I never was full aware of the implications. I simply used poor judgment. I resepct the dignity of each patient and see many patients that are simply refused care by others.

In your March column, you open it with the statement “I was taught by my parents (and the nuns) to treat everyone with respect and dignity.” In hindsight, do you think the August column was in keeping with that? Does being in the context of a column that is meant to be humorous influence the feeling you had about this context?
I blew it. I was not respecting the dignity of my patients with these comments. I didn’t recognize that this is a different audience than the comedy clubs – of course I will revamp my comedy routines now that I know the potential hurt some jokes can inflict.

Did you ever think about how comments such as these, even in jest, may conflict with your oath as a doctor or breach any sort of rules of conduct or ethics in how you should treat your patients?
Again, poor decision on my prt. I didnt separate the healer from the comedian. I determine to be the best healer I can be by repsecting the needs and dignity of all my patients. I think that all comics should learn from this and recognize that humor can be truly used as a weapon.

Given the reaction to this article… what do you feel you feel you can take out of this situation… personally and professionally?
I for one will make my comedy ‘career’ more in line with my healing mission. There is simply no occassion for using harmful comments. No laughter is worth it. he irony is that I really do try to keep my comedy positive. A priest once told me that ‘humor is a ift of the Holy Spirit” Clearly the Holy Spirit was not behind most of these jokes.

I’ve long held the view personally, that no matter what your job is… you are in “customer service”. In your case you have patients, but they are also your “customer”. Given that I’ve often felt it is not the mistakes we make that define us, but rather what we do to fix them. To give a simple analogy; when dining out if my server screws up my order I don’t automatically decide they won’t get tipped, instead I wait to see
if they resolve the situation to my satisfaction.

With that in mind, do you have any ideas on what you may do or what steps you may take to “fix this”?
I have issued an apology and have answered every email I received from this mistake. I ask the readers to forgive me for this lapse of judgment. I see this as a postivie for me and other ‘comics’ who are not aware of the potential harm they may inflict.

And lastly, do you have any additional thoughts you wish to share?
Obesity is a real problem but can only be remedied with kindness, compassion and absence of judgment. I was out of line and did nothing to help the resolution of the problem. My obese patients are some of the kindest, empathic and sincere patients I know. I humbly ask for their forgiveness.

Based on some feedback from others, I came up with one last question shortly after I sent the above questions to him… so I sent this as well.

How do you think you might react if a patient, an obese patient, were to come in to your office for a consultation and they were to hand you a copy of this article?
Rob, I would simply ‘own it’ and apologize for the lapse in awareness. I have suffered and learned a great deal from this.

There you have it.

I did encourage (more than once throughout our exchange I believe) that Doctor Kelly consider supporting organizations such as the OAC and the WLSFA, both directly and by passing along the word to his colleagues. So who knows, maybe something positive can come of this in the long run.

Now I have my own thoughts and feelings about this situation… about this possible resolution. But I’m not quite ready to share them. Instead I am interested in seeing how others react. Are these the words of a man who has realized he made a mistake and is truly learning from it? If this was someone you knew professionally or personally, could you forgive him… or at the least give him the opportunity to show you he is sorry?

I did encourage (more than once throughout our exchange I believe) that Doctor Kelly consider supporting organizations such as the OAC and the WLSFA, both directly and by passing along the word to his colleagues. So who knows, maybe something positive can come of this in the long run.

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About Rob

I had RNY Gastric Bypass on April 8, 2009. I went from my heaviest of over 380 down to a low of 188 (for about a day!) before working on rebuilding muscle and such. Now I maintain at about 225. WLS has changed my life in so many ways, including my career as I now tackle nutritional coaching and other obesity education issues and is also a co-host on The Wake Up Call, a health and wellness radio show.