Kimberley Darey, MD ’04, started her career as a chemist. Once she switched to medicine, she pivoted to being a physician, which led her to being a hospital administrator.
Now Dr. Darey is set to be named President of Elmhurst Hospital. She also recently was named to the Elmhurst Memorial Hospital Foundation Board of Trustees, recognized as one of Crain’s Chicago Business’ 2022 Most Notable Executives of Color in Healthcare, and honored with Chicago Medical School’s 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award for Service.
Dr. Darey credits mentors who gave her opportunities to pursue what inspired her most, allowing her to rise up the ranks despite not taking a traditional path to medicine.
“Just because someone hasn’t made a numerical cut doesn’t mean they won’t make it. If that were the case, I wouldn’t be here,” Dr. Darey said.
Dr. Darey, “a science-and-math kid,” got her first taste of a career in health care through the Chicago Area Health and Medical Careers Program at Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville. That program, nicknamed CAHMCP, started in the 1970s and long has focused on introducing more people of color into medicine, dentistry and other health-related fields.
“People need to feel included and they need to feel like their voices are heard. When they feel included, we can make our patients feel included, too.”
From there, she went to Xavier University of Louisiana. But around her third year, she started to doubt herself.
“I don’t know if I can do this because everyone’s getting 4.0s,” Dr. Darey remembers thinking. “I was a little worried, because that was the time you started taking the MCATs, and I was concerned about being rejected.”
She changed her major that year to focus on chemistry and worked as a chemist for seven years at various drug companies.
Another shift wasn’t far ahead, when Dr. Darey started working in clinical trials at G.D. Searle LLC, a subsidiary of Pfizer based in suburban Skokie, Illinois. With support from her boss, she set out to obtain her MD, but she had no designs on doing residencies or working with patients.
“I was a background lab person. I didn’t think I had the skills to take care of patients,” Dr. Darey said.
She went back to CAHMCP for help. The program director who remembered her as a student guided Dr. Darey toward courses that helped secure an interview and admission into Chicago Medical School.
“It definitely was roundabout, but I think it’s really important to have these programs for people who may not go straight through,” Dr. Darey said. “If we didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be a doctor. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the work, because obviously I got through it at school. It’s just that I needed someone to give me a chance.”
Capitalizing on her love for chemistry, Dr. Darey’s initial goal was to be an anesthesiologist, or “the chemist of the OR.” Thinking little of obstetrics and gynecology, she pushed the specialty to be her final rotation — and then she was hooked. Nearing her senior year, she quickly had to shift gears and change her applications to land an OB-GYN residency.
After working in private practice for several years, she joined Elmhurst in 2010, becoming medical director of the Elmhurst Hospital Family Birthing Center and working under the Chief Medical Officer. Learning more about her boss’s job foretold another career shift.
“I realized how much I like hospital administration. I like seeing how a hospital runs,” Dr. Darey said. “As a physician, it’s like ordering something off a menu, and you don’t care that your steak has to be flown in from Australia. It’s understanding the economics of health care. That just changed my view.”
She rose to Chief Medical Officer — the first Black physician to achieve that ranking — and Vice President of Medical Affairs for Elmhurst Hospital. She was scheduled to assume the President role in January.
Inclusivity is core to Dr. Darey’s mission. She is chair of the hospital’s diversity council and said one of her main goals is to create a workplace where people can speak up about any prejudice they face. The hospital is implementing mandatory microaggressions and unconscious bias training, Dr. Darey said.
“People need to feel included and they need to feel like their voices are heard,” said Dr. Darey. “When they feel included, we can make our patients feel included, too.”
She added that it’s crucial that the medical field open more pathways for people of color to start their careers, then provide the support so they may continue their work serving patients with empathy and compassion.
“I think there’s something to say about, ‘What kind of physicians are we trying to create?’” Dr. Darey said. “There’s a recipe to getting into medical school, but most people of color don’t know what it is. Our society deserves to have a diverse group of people to handle a diverse group of patients, and we need to do something to help them get there.”
Dawn Rhodes is a Chicago-based writer and editor. She’s worked in journalism for more than a decade.