Kapolei Q&A: Kim Kelley, Doctor and Wellness Leader

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Kim Kelley was a high school basketball star who won a college scholarship and came back to her small Ohio hometown to serve as a doctor. But the life she thought she wanted didn’t make her happy. A “mid-life epiphany” changed everything.

Kelley moved to Hawai’i, finding a new path that led to becoming a naval officer, a published author, and entrepreneur. She founded Core Wellness Healing, which runs wellness retreats. Kim lives in Ko Olina. I spoke to her on a lanai overlooking the ocean.

Howzit Kapolei: You’ve written about your mid-life epiphany. What led to that?

Kim Kelley: I was living everybody else’s life. Even though it looked like I had all the trappings and trimmings of a successful physician — I was married to a physician, three children, a dog, a cat, fish, all of that, I wasn’t happy. Actually I was sad. I wasn’t living the life that I thought that I could.

So I had this little talk with the universe. I said, “Look. You can take it all away. Make me be what you want me to do. Help me to be what you want me to be.”

HK: And what happened?

Kim: You have to be careful what you ask for. Because you’re going to get it. I had asked the universe to intercede and make these things happen, sure enough they did happen.

So that was my epiphany. And what I also realized was, I’m an anesthesiologist by trade, and I thought about it. I thought: “Okay, you’re depressed. You can go to the doctor, you can get some Prozac.

“Or you can do the hard work. You can do the really hard work, and kind of dig in the soil of your own soul and figure out what it is you truly want.”

Within three years I found myself here in Hawai’i with my two younger children. By that time I was no longer married.

HK: What brought you to Hawai’i?

Kim: We would always travel to Hawai’i, and my goal was to retire here. Well, as fate would have it, during this midlife epiphany I thought, “Okay. Here. Here.”

I found myself in a very new place, new people, new town, new job. All of those things were new to me, but what was comforting to me was when I went out to the water, I went to swim, I could find my peace and joy and my happiness there.

I could find that serene, that calmness, that peace that I was searching for.

Now, my life was turned upside-down. I had none of those things that we think sometimes make us happy. I didn’t have any of that, but I was as happy as I could be. I mean, I was so overjoyed. Just me and my children, and we were making it. We were doing it and we were making a difference.

Kim found work practicing anaesthesology at Tripler Army Medical Center, as a civilian employee. After a few years there, she decided to join the military herself.

HK: How did you make the choice to enlist?

Kim: I wanted to see or understand more what it was like to wear the uniform. And I also wanted to also do mission work. In the Navy they have two large ships that go and do missions work. So I expressed my desire to do that.

So they said: “How old are you?” And I said my age, they said “Look. If you want to do this you’d better sign up right now.”

So I signed up. And so now, I’m a reservist. One weekend a month I put on the uniform and then two weeks out of the year I go to a Naval base.

They send you where they want you to go for the most part, and then, if there is a need overseas for deployment you may be called up. So I may be called up, and you know I understand that. It’s okay. That’s part of it.

HK: And what brought you out to the west side?

Kim: I had, as I said, two children, and we actually landed up in Kailua. We were in Kailua until they finished their schooling.

And then I started to swim. I learned how to swim and it was more comfortable out here on the West Side, and so beautiful out here on the West Side compared to downtown.

I have a lot of friends who swim, and after work I would run out here and do the swim and then go right on back and they’re like: “Well why don’t you just move out this way? Everything’s happening out this way, you know they’re building up. You should just move out here.”

HK: So it’s one thing to go through this change yourself. But how are you finding the confidence to lead other people?

Kim: It made quite a difference in my life, and I thought “well why not give that back?” I wanted to be able to tell a story to help others. And I thought if I shared my journey, and if I was vulnerable and transparent it could make a difference in their lives as well.

HK: Who are you trying to help?

Kim: I’m in the healthcare field, and there is a lot of mental illness in some of the healthcare professions. Often times we don’t acknowledge that we have issues, that we have challenges, but we do.

We’ve kind of got lost in this big ball of medicine. You’ve gone to medical school, now you’re in debt two hundred thousand dollars, you can’t quit.

You’ve got to have a job, you’ve got to take care of your family, got to pay your bills and you’re just like “ugh! I’ll do this for a minute.” And then what? That’s my humble, personal opinion, but that’s what I believe is going on with the physicians particularly.

Suicide is very, very prominent in the medical profession. Some figures say anywhere from three hundred to four hundred physicians a year take their own lives. And here in Hawai’i we can’t afford that shortage. We already have a huge shortage of primary care physicians.

How can the healer be healed? You can’t just go to anybody. You just can’t raise your hand because you have a position in society and they respect and look up to you, so you have to be careful if you do that.

But I thought, at this stage in my career it’s time. I have a message, and I think it’s something that can truly make a difference for others as well.

In 2018, Kim authored a book, The Road to Mana: Finding Healing, Happiness and Power on the Road to Happiness.

HK: What made you decide to write the book?

Kim: We started Core Wellness Healing in 2015, and we had a few retreats. We were doing okay. but then I stopped. I’m like, “I’ve got to write this book. I’ve got something to say and I need to share this with people. They need to kind of hear it in a different way, and maybe if they hear it in a different way with a different slant, maybe it’ll be more receptive.”

HK: Your book is less of a how-to and more of a story. Why did you choose that format?

Kim: You know, here in Hawai’i we talk story. We like to sit and we just talk story. And so that is the context that I wanted to being the message. I didn’t want a PowerPoint presentation: “Oh, one, two, three, four, and five things and you’ll be fine.”

These five different people, they find themselves at a retreat on Big Island, because Big Island is wonderful, very spiritual, very unique, and so that’s where it takes place.

Five people from five different walks of life come for a week at Sister’s retreat. She’s this wise sage and she basically holds a mirror to them so they can really learn and have self-reflection.

Often times that’s how you learn, is just self-reflection, not somebody “You need to do this, this, this, this.” That’s not how we learn. Look in the mirror. So that’s how that evolved.

And each character represents a different pillar of healing.

HK: What are the healing pillars?

Kim: The pillars are nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, massage, and yoga.

HK: Which of those is the most important?

Kim: I think as each person grows, different ones kind of present themselves to you and then you realize that, “Oh, maybe I need a little of this or maybe I need a little of that.”

Basically my message is let’s get back. Less is more.

Let’s do it the simple way that we used to do it. Let’s eat properly. Let’s exercise properly. Let’s just do any movement. I’m not asking you to run a marathon or win it, but let’s just keep in motion daily.

I mean, taking these things in and just being mindful. Just taking a breath, even. Take a breath and I mean, look out here! Look at that incredible view. I mean, my God!

That’s primary nutrition. Those are the things that feed your soul. It’s one thing to feed your body. It’s a-whole-nother level to feed your soul.

HK: What’s another example of primary nutrition?

Kim: You remember when you were a little boy and you played by the streetlight and you played tag with your friends and you could play all day? And you didn’t get hungry at all. Never got hungry. Your parents would have to call you, “come in! Come in, you’ve got to eat!” [crosstalk

You’re like, “no, no!” Because you were fed. You were fed on such a different level, and that’s the truth. That’s the true nutrition.

I mean obviously we know that we need to eat a plant-based diet and whole foods and those kinds of things. We know that, or we’re learning that, but then what about that heart piece? Those are some of the things that we talk about at our retreats and workshops.

HK: What types of people are attending your workshops?

Kim: It’s not just doctors. Any CEO, any professional, actually any healthcare professional too. Nurses, PAs, nurse practitioners, that as well. To me the greatest need is with the health professions.

We’re the ones who are trying to heal, but yet we’re not necessarily well ourselves, so how does that look?

As healthcare providers we’re serving, because that’s what we raised our hands to do, no problem there. But sometimes there’s a disconnect when our own personal needs aren’t necessarily met, so those are issues of the heart. Those are heart illnesses.