Early experiences inspired KU donor Rosalie Henry
May 04, 2017
By Joe Stumpe
Growing up in rural western Kansas, Rosalie Henry experienced first-hand what a lack of medical care can mean. She was 2 years old when her father died of a ruptured appendix that possibly could have been treated if the nearest doctor had been closer than a two-hour drive away.
She was 12 when her ear infection turned into mastoiditis, requiring her to undergo two surgeries and spend a month in a Hays hospital, about 60 miles from her home. During that time, her mother rented a room in a house behind the hospital.
"If it had been close, my mom could have stayed at home and just driven back and forth," Henry said.
Those episodes played a role in Henry choosing a career in health care and more recently, her decision to endow a professorship in rural health in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at KUSM-Wichita. The professorship is endowed through KU Endowment, the independent, nonprofit organization serving as the official fundraising and fund-management organization for KU.
"It was so good when they started building those county hospitals and of course the doctors likely to go there are family doctors," she said. "A lot of lives are saved because they've got these close hospitals. If it's a bad heart attack, they can keep them going until they fly them out."
Henry, a native of Graham County, was one of 16 students in her high school's graduating class in Morland, Kansas. She started college at Fort Hays State, then transferred to KU in Lawrence to earn a degree in microbiology.
She spent a year interning at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, preparing for the examination to become a medical technologist and getting to know the city that would become home for most of her adult life.
Henry smiles as she recalls sharing a house with five other young women. Fortunately, it was within walking distance of the hospital, since she was the only one with a car.
"There were two of us to a room. We slept in the same bed, which kids wouldn't do today. We took turns every week doing the cooking and cleanup."
After passing her exam, Henry worked in the medical center's blood bank, then located in the basement of what was a much smaller hospital. The medical technologists drew blood from donors, a task that would later be taken over by a community blood center. "I'll tell you, it helps when you're drawing if you're a people person," Henry said. "You can kind of visit with people while you're doing it."
Henry was made a supervisor and worked in the lab until 1964. "Then I got itchy feet," she said.
She took a job supervising another blood bank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota She enjoyed the work but soon discovered her cloth-top MGB didn't do well in the South Dakota weather, and neither did she. "I didn't realize how seriously cold it is."
Her next stop was at St. Johns Hospital in Santa Monica, California, where she spent five years. Henry thinks everybody should have the chance, at least once, to live far from home.
"There were people from so many countries," she said. "It was enjoyable."
She returned to Kansas City in 1971, lured back by a job opening at Research Medical Center. She wanted to be able to visit her stepfather, who was starting to have health problems, on weekend trips to western Kansas. "I was never sorry I came back."
Henry worked through the AIDS crisis that started in the mid-1980s and saw many other changes in her field as well. In the beginning, much of her work was done with test tubes, comparing the blood of intended recipients and donors to make sure they were compatible for blood transfusions. "The test tubes take time," she said. "It's a different story now, they can do it much faster.
Henry said her job gave her the feeling of being part of something important.
"You're working with the emergency room, you're working with surgeons. If somebody is bleeding and you've got to get blood, you're a big part of it. You felt like you were really doing something, and you knew it was helping."
Henry retired in 1993, after her mother suffered a heart attack, then went back to work part-time for a few more years.
Today, she keeps busy with volunteer work. At the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, she helps seat hundreds of schoolchildren for matinee performances and also helps with the snack bar. "That's a mess, as you can imagine," she said with a smile.
She helps prepare and serve lunch at Crosslines, which serves the needy in Kansas City, Kansas, and also works in its Christmas store, which distributes household necessities and gifts during the holiday season.
"I love doing that. You feel like you're helping people. They come and get stuff and they're happy."
She's on the care committee of Colonial Church in Prairie Village, visiting people who are homebound or in nursing homes, taking them heart-shaped cookies on Valentine's Day and poinsettias at Christmas.
She exercises at the Landon Aging Center and is a die-hard fan of the KU Jayhawks, noting that she's been cheering for the team since before its games were played in Allen Fieldhouse. Indeed, she was a student at KU during the Clyde Lovellette years and remembers seeing Wilt Chamberlain come to the medical center for a check-up. "He was so tall it looked like his head would go through the ceiling."
She attends games whenever possible. Dr. Rick Kellerman, a fellow Jayhawk basketball fanatic, went to a game with Henry earlier this year and says there's no doubt about her enthusiasm for the team.
"She's just a very dynamic, energetic, thoughtful person who's a lot fun," Kellerman said.
Henry has another connection to KU Wichita: Stacy Dimitt, a 2011 graduate of the medical school who is the daughter of Henry's cousin. Dimitt, who practices family medicine in Smith Center, has always referred to Henry as her "Aunt Rosalie." The two speak by telephone frequently and Henry has visited Dimitt in Smith Center, where the family physician "showed me around and introduced me to everybody."
Henry says her early experiences might have led her to medical school, too. But she says she was discouraged from pursuing that route; even a female physician who operated on her told her that the culture then prevailing made it difficult for women to get into medical school and practice successfully afterward.
Henry is glad to hear that current medical school classes are usually split about evenly between men and women.
"It's gotten better," she said. "We just need more family physicians, that's the thing."KU School of Medicine-Wichita