Like many doctors, Justin Kennon’s interest in medicine ignited when he was a patient himself. He was in high school in Georgia and had damaged his knee in such a way that it required surgery. The physician who cared for him left a positive impact, so much that young Justin started shadowing the doctor and taking an interest in orthopedics.
However, at the same time, there was another immeasurable strain on the family. Throughout most of Dr. Kennon’s childhood, his father had been sick with a rare form of cancer. Five rounds of treatments over 15 years translated to a lot of time spent in and out of hospitals. When his father passed away, that left his mother, an elementary school teacher, and him to bear the weight of grief.
“I’d spent a lot of time in the hospital. I’d go to school, then drive an hour to Emory to visit my dad. I’m an only child, so Mom had a lot to deal with. It was not a normal high school situation. I’d been around health care and dealt with life and death things,” says Dr. Kennon. “I had an opportunity to make this the death of me, or I could not. I could make it a motivating force.”
He attended Georgia Tech as a pre-med student on an academic scholarship. Yet, upon graduation, Dr. Kennon hit pause and decided not to pursue medical school right away. Instead, he went to work.
“I didn’t want to ask my mom for help with medical school, so I took a job working in business and ended up in the orthopedic industry as a product specialist,” he says. “I’d teach doctors about total knee and hip replacements. Surgery had been done the same way for a long time, but technology was changing. This was the early-to-mid-2000s, and there were better ways to do it.”
This would be the foreshadowing part of Dr. Kennon’s story - a young businessman fresh out of college in Knoxville, in a Parkwest Hospital operating room alongside orthopedic surgeons teaching them about new technologies. He wasn’t scrubbed in, mind you, but he was part of the process. He could’ve stayed in that role and accepted it as his life’s plan, but not being the surgeon meant he wasn’t following up with patients. He wasn’t seeing them a year down the road to see for himself how their lives had improved.
“I felt like I had a calling to do more. So, I took the MCAT, not sure if I’d pass because I hadn’t been in a biology class in four years. But I took it and did fine, so I applied to a few places. Within 48 hours of getting accepted into medical school I was offered a promotion at my job,” he says. “It was an easy decision.”
Dr. Kennon moved back to his home state to attend the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta and stayed there an additional five years for his residency. Yet, there was one more stop on his journey back to Knoxville.
“I did a year of subspecialty training at Mayo Clinic in shoulder and elbow reconstruction. When I got the opportunity, I knew it was gonna be cold, but I couldn’t let it pass by me. My wife and two boys moved to Minnesota and I trained with world-class people - designing the implants, writing all the papers, doing all of it,” he says. And when the training was over, the Kennons knew Knoxville was where they wanted to be.
Now Dr. Kennon is back in the operating room at Parkwest, not as the product specialist but as the surgeon. Walking patients through the entire process - from the initial consultation to the one-year, post-op check-up - has been the culmination of a long-time dream.
What’s more, the technologies he’s working with is exactly what Knoxville needed.
“I knew I could make a big difference in the shoulder world. There are successful practices here, but lots of the technology being used is nearly 20 years old. You don’t have to go to Nashville or Atlanta to get your procedures done with the best technology anymore. The stuff that’s happening at Mayo Clinic? I’m doing that here in Knoxville,” he says.
The majority of patients Dr. Kennon sees are primarily men who’ve lived years - maybe decades - with pain or limited mobility in their shoulders, many of whom are treated non-surgically, whether it be through arthroscopic procedures or biologic injections. However, if shoulder replacement is the best option, then Dr. Kennon is the go-to guy.
“One of the big technologies that I and [Tennessee Orthopaedic Clinics] have been the first to do in Tennessee is called Navigation. We bring a computer into the operating room and import imaging from your shoulder,” he says. “It’s like Google Maps. It tells you where you’re at and then it tells you a route. The computer tells me in real time where my hand is and where it needs to go. They’ve been using this technology in knee and hip replacements for years, but not in shoulder.”
The second big technology Dr. Kennon uses is a 3D printer, not unlike the technology used by NASA. In addition to 2D imaging, he can now hold a 3D model of the patient’s shoulder in his hand for a better understanding of how the joint fits together. All of this translates to a quicker, more efficient procedure, and most patients go home the same day.
“A lot of what I see are patients who started having problems in their 50s and 60s but waited until their 70s to do something about it. I see a lot of people in their 80s who would’ve made good candidates, but they waited too long,” says Dr. Kennon. “I say do it when it makes you better so you can go out and live more life.
“Men are the worst,” he adds. “Hard-headed and stubborn about going to the doctor. But I’ll tell you - you don’t have to live in pain. We have some primary care doctors who even advise their patients against shoulder replacement, but they are often going off of old statistics and old technologies. Many don’t realize how far things have progressed in the past five to ten years. Success rates are better than you might think - 95 percent or better, even in older patients. In the time of COVID-19, we’ve had so much bad news, but we’ve done a lot to make it safe here at Parkwest. We have a lot to be optimistic about in healthcare here in Knoxville. There are exciting things happening here.”
Learn more at KnoxvilleShoulderElbow.com.