The first person to walk into Clínica Médicos was named Jesús. It was February 28, 2015—three days before the medical clinic, launched by Kelly Arnold (’00), officially opened to the public. Jesús, recovering from brain surgery and out of his chemotherapy medication, had just moved from Florida to Chattanooga for work and spoke no English.
“He saw the sign in Spanish and knocked on the door,” says Arnold, the clinic’s medical director and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Tennessee’s College of Medicine Chattanooga.
Arnold founded the clinic on a principle: no one who walks in will ever be turned away. They will get the help they need—even if they show up three days early. She welcomed Jesús in Spanish, called an oncologist she knew, and within an hour had arranged for him to receive treatment. Two years later, Arnold guided Jesús’s wife through the delivery of the couple’s second child.
“Seeing the life that came to this man through the clinic and the birth of a child, in the same bed of hands that cares for him and cares for his family, it’s just one of the most crystallizing patient experiences I’ve ever had,” Arnold says.
In October, Arnold was named the 2020 Family Physician of the Year by the Tennessee Academy of Family Physicians.
For the past five years, she and her team have provided medical services to more than 22,000 patients, largely uninsured and underserved Latinos who make up a growing percentage of Chattanooga and Hamilton County’s population. For her work, Arnold has been twice selected for the Champions of Healthcare Community Outreach award by the Chattanooga Times Free Press and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. She was also a member of the 2019–20 class of Leadership Tennessee and chosen by the Harvard Business School to participate in its 2021 Young American Leaders program.
But Arnold didn’t follow the traditional path to medicine.
Two decades before creating a model for urban mission medicine in the region, she was an 18-year-old Spanish major living in UT’s Massey Hall, exploring the humanities and taking advantage of study abroad opportunities to immerse herself in the languages and cultures of the people she now serves.
“The undergraduate platform, especially studying abroad, gave me a cultural, linguistic, and relational appreciation for Latin American culture,” Arnold says. “Because of that, I can be the kind of doctor who can look at my patients and say, ‘I understand, I understand you, and I want to take care of you.’”
A very unexpected journey
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Memphis during her teenage years, Arnold arrived in Knoxville in January 1997. Her father, who chaired the family medicine department at UT Health Science Center until 2000, is a third-generation physician and her mother is a nurse. But, instead of science courses, Arnold filled her schedule with Spanish, religious studies, and humanities classes.
Noticing how seriously she took her Spanish major, a professor recommended Arnold study abroad. First, she went to Puebla, Mexico. Then, her senior year, she attended Universidad de Belgrano in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
While providing a more intimate connection to culture and language, studying abroad also led Arnold to develop a deep love for the people she lived among.
“By the time I came home from Argentina, it was almost like I felt this obligation to let other people know about them,” Arnold says. “To advocate in this space of societal and cultural ignorance. I’ve actually had the fortune of living intimately with people who are different from me, and I know not everyone gets that experience.”
Arnold had planned to pursue a PhD in Spanish. But, suddenly medical school seemed like an option again. She told Ronald Foresta, professor emeritus of geography, and he told her something she’s held close in the 20 years since: “Don’t let that white coat change who you are.”
“There was no chance I’d do that,” says Arnold, who returned to Memphis to attend UT Health Science Center after graduating with her bachelor’s in Spanish in 2000. “I wasn’t going to let being a doctor shut out my other passions. I was going to be a more well-rounded, compassionate doctor because of those experiences.”
In medical school, Arnold continued her studies abroad in Cuba and traveled on medical missions trips to Ecuador and Guatemala. In 2009, she completed her family medicine residency at the UT College of Medicine Chattanooga. She was the only Spanish-speaking doctor or staff member in the department during her residency. She answered phone calls from worried mothers and translated prescription labels. She guided patients from the time they walked through the hospital doors until they were admitted then checked in on them to make sure they understood everything happening around them.
“It was really daunting and formidable,” Arnold says. “Most people just accept that’s the way things are. They resign themselves to the fact that it’s too hard to do anything about.”
But Arnold learned Spanish for a reason. She went overseas for a reason. She was in Chattanooga for a reason. So, she did something about it.
A new way of serving
Retired from the Air Force, James Haynes served in Iraq and has worked with countless family physicians in the military and as professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine at UT College of Medicine Chattanooga.
“Kelly is the most impactful family physician I’ve ever met,” says Haynes. “It’s immediately recognizable. There is just something different about her.”
When she opened Clínica Médicos, Haynes saw it as an opportunity to provide more hands-on opportunities for the department’s medical residents. Before Arnold’s clinic, residents were delivering up to 50 babies a year. That number is now at least 200.
The clinic has provided residents more newborn exposure, pediatric experience, and cultural competence than they would’ve ever had prior. In 2018, Arnold launched a maternal health fellowship focused on advanced obstetrics, including cesarean section, for underserved and uninsured communities. She trains up to two fellows a year.
“Great family physicians provide comprehensive care—all ages, aspects, preventative, acute, hospitalized, outpatient,” Haynes says. “And they are advocates for their patients. They don’t let systems get in the way of doing what’s right. Kelly provides care to whoever shows up at the door.”
La Paz Chattanooga, an organization serving Latinos in the area since 2004, refers many of its clients to Arnold’s clinic.
“It eliminates stress and barriers for the community to know they can go to a place where everyone speaks Spanish and understands their culture,” says Stacey Johnson, executive director of La Paz.
In April, Arnold’s clinic received $50,000 from the BlueCross Foundation to provide COVID-19 testing to the community. Arnold went a step further, providing free care throughout the month for anyone who showed up.
“We know, in hard times, what tends to get put aside is health care,” says Arnold, a member of the Chattanooga and Hamilton County COVID-19 joint task force. “The ripple effect for our mothers and families was so large. So, we had to go bigger for them.”
Beyond the virus, babies will still be born. Children in Chattanooga will need shots for school. There will still be people like Jesús knocking on Arnold’s door asking for help. And, chances are, she will be there to open it.
“From the moment we built this, we said we were going to be culturally competent and allow people to come in as they are, just like I had seen in the corners of the world,” Arnold says. “When they get here, they will have a doctor who not only cares about them but who wants to know them and their families. That’s my promise.”
Brian Canever (865-974-0937, firstname.lastname@example.org)