Jamila Kendall, MD
No matter what life challenges come your way, you must remain positive—that is how you’ll get through it. This sage advice comes from Dr. Jamila Kendall, who finds positivity when life does not always go as planned. Jamila has had a unique journey that ranges from Captain in the US Army Nurse Corp to multiple sclerosis patient, and then to medical doctor.
As a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, NY, Jamila always knew she wanted to be a doctor and save lives. She set out to major in pre-med and nursing at the University of Pennsylvania. After the first year of college, she experienced the intensity and demands of a double health major and decided to first focus on earning her Penn Nursing degree. Shortly after she graduated, she commissioned into the U.S. Army as a labor and delivery nurse but her ambition to become a doctor remained.
In the Army, Jamila travelled the globe to various stations, spanning from Hawaii to Germany. She quickly climbed the ranks to captain and held leadership roles as a charge nurse, team leader, and platoon leader. But Jamila’s health steadily declined throughout her military career, and she began experiencing strange symptoms: fatigue, sporadic pain, and burning and tingling in her fingers. The search for the cause of her maladies continued unidentified. After five years of searching for a diagnosis, she retired.
“I truly believe that it was my experience as a nurse that made me my own best advocate in finding a diagnosis despite all the tests coming back negative,” she said. Eventually, a spinal tap and MRI provided the answer: she had multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information within the brain, and between the brain and body. But an MS diagnosis was not going to stop Jamila from pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor. In fact, it led her to discover her medical specialty of physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R). Jamila enrolled in Morehouse School of Medicine. She is now a Doctor of Physical Medicine and rehabilitation resident at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School’s Kessler Inpatient Rehab in Newark, New Jersey.
What fueled Jamila’s drive to continue pursuing her goal of becoming a doctor even after experiencing a life-altering health challenge? As a military nurse, she was expected to take on leadership roles which fueled her curiosity to learn more. She felt she reached a ceiling in her nursing career and wanted to broaden her scope of practice. At times, her nursing expertise and plan of care were exceeded by the higher authority of a doctor. Jamila wanted to do more and have stronger influence in final decision making. She also wanted to ensure that she could help provide the care that she had not initially received. These were the catalysts that led her to enroll in med-school.
“My MS taught me there is life after diagnosis,” Jamila said. “My personal journey reinforced the compassion I already had as a nurse, and it strengthens my perspective as a doctor. I never want my patients to feel like they are not being heard.”
Jamila is an advocate for invisible disabilities because she understands what it is like to suffer from serious symptoms that cannot be easily explained. PM&R focuses on the quality of life and helping individuals get back to independent living. It is about moving past survival and returning the person to who they were before their circumstance. Jamila has focused her career helping patients return to a functional life that still has meaning despite their diagnosis.
But Jamila stresses that she found the field of nursing to be extremely fulfilling and doesn’t regret a second of it. “I have always believed that nurses are the eyes and ears of the hospital. They need to be at every decision-making table.” Jamila also credits her experience at Penn Nursing as an influence on her professional drive. “Penn Nursing provided a solid foundation of leadership and high-level mentality of strength, determination, and preparation to deal with anything. It gave me that confidence to think outside of the box.” Jamila shares that Penn Nursing faculty felt like family to her. “Dr. Fairman will always be like a mom to me—she was my advisor, and I still keep in touch with her. Dr. Sarah Kagan’s smile always got me through tough times, and I always looked up to the Dean while I was at Penn.”
Now that Jamila has achieved her professional aspirations, she’ll continue striving to provide the best care for her patients while focusing on being a great wife and mom to her two-year-old toddler, while also managing her MS symptoms and personal health. Jamila’s career is inspirational—she found the professional path that worked best for her even during challenging times “You can do anything that you put your mind to no matter what comes your way. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and remember to prioritize taking care of yourself.”
Random fact: As a child, Jamila played the steel drums. She and a few of her bandmates from the C.A.S.Y.M. Steel Orchestra were featured in the Sesame Street 25th Anniversary Musical Celebration.