Everyone has a story, and each story is unique, intimate, and powerful. Our Narrative series invites you to step inside someone else’s life by reading their story, as told in their own words. Readers, please come open-minded and ready to engage in one of the many stories that makes our community complete. The following is the narrative of Jack Ayres, a first-year medical student at KUMC.
Can you share a brief summary of your life?
I grew up in Overland Park, and I’ve lived here for my entire life, with the exception of moving to Manhattan, KS for a couple of years for college and for a year after. Since then, I’ve been in the Kansas City area, so this is home. I graduated from Blue Valley Southwest and I broke family tradition going to college at K-State because all of my family went to KU! My parents met and got engaged on the hill before the scoreboard was built at Memorial Stadium. I tell people that I would not be alive without cheap beer because my parents met at a KU home football game with the aforementioned libations as a catalyst: they were on the hill both drinking Old Milwaukee or something like that. Mom walked over to my Dad and said something like, “Hey, don’t steal my beer without asking for my permission!” My dad didn’t know what she was talking about, and said, “What are you talking about? I brought this.” She responded “Oh, I thought I was the only one to drink this cheap beer,” to which he responded, “No, I drink the cheap stuff too.” That is how they met. A few years later, they got engaged at that same spot on the hill and then I came along a couple years after that.
So anyways, I went to K-State and had a really good experience there because I went to college with this thought in the back of my mind about medicine, but I wasn’t totally sure. I actually studied engineering at K-State, and although medicine was always something that I thought about, I didn’t have a formal introduction to it in college or in high school, for that matter. In college, I got involved with student government and that kind of opened this door to politics, which was something that I had not had any appreciation for or understanding of going into college. Through that process, I learned about politics, but that is what ultimately led me to decide to look into medicine a little more seriously.
I was able to serve in the role of Student Body President at K-State for a year – it was an awesome year working with the legislature, and also with the Board of Regents. That proved to be a phenomenal experience because I got to work with leaders from KU Med. I think that experience in and of itself really solidified my interest in medicine because I saw just how much medical education and healthcare across the state was present in every discussion. Even in the capital, when we were talking about higher education, healthcare still came up, whether through education-related initiatives or other state services.
All that is to say, that same reason that got me excited about med school somewhat led to the reason why I didn’t quite go to med school right away. About a month after I got accepted to KU Med, my mentor was appointed to be Lieutenant Governor in Kansas, and subsequently hired me to be his assistant. I was an assistant to him for a year, and in that role, I learned a lot about the state. I think I’ve sipped a cup of coffee in every single county in the state.
In August 2018, we didn’t win our primary election, so I started to look for the next thing to fill my time before medical school started. By then, I was really then reassured about my decision to pursue medicine but wanted to figure out the best way to spend the next couple months of my life before school started. I got connected with a guy named Benjamin Anderson, the CEO of Kearny County hospital in Lakin, KS, the fifth most remote town in the United States. Benjamin was a great leader in the community and in the hospital, and they were doing a couple things that really caught my attention.
First, they recruit doctors that are mission-oriented, and they allow doctors to take 10 weeks paid time off to go and do mission work internationally. Accordingly, you hire these really great doctors with great hearts that come out there and want to come care for the population. The hospital had been really intentional with focusing on embracing and solving the toughest healthcare challenges of the day. One big challenge in Western Kansas is access to maternity care and prenatal care. There are an abundance of financial issues that have forced a lot of rural hospitals to close, and many of which are still open have had to close their maternity wards. At the hospital in Lakin, Benjamin Anderson as CEO was looking at this issue and effectively said, “You know what? Rather than closing our doors to the OB Ward, let’s dive in. Let’s double down.” They did just that by developing a really incredible program called Pioneer Baby, offering top-notch prenatal care services and investing in infrastructure critical to successful maternal child health outcomes. The numbers speak for themselves: their primary c-section rate is lower than the national average, and they do VBACs which is not common in a 25-bed critical-access hospital.
Benjamin’s leadership wasn’t limited to OB. He established a framework and a culture of caring for new Americans in the community. There’s a large migrant and refugee population in Garden City, and southwest Kansas in general is very diverse. The Tyson beef packing plant in Holcomb, Kansas estimates that there are nearly 50 different languages spoken there and Garden City High School boasts an equally impressive number ESL offerings. Benjamin sought to be very intentional about providing care for immigrant and refugee populations – investing in translation, investing in care coordination, teaching doctors how to deal with conditions in a culturally sensitive way.
Anyways, I obviously deferred for the reason of working in the governor’s office, but I think that working out west, and my experience in rural counties with Benjamin Anderson, provided a lot of my background given the intriguing things that I witnessed there. Those are the things that I think about every day and what I’m passionate about.
If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be and why?
I would say the word “Loud,” which is kind of a bit of self-realization because all my friends are always complaining, “We can hear your voice come down the hallway wherever you are,” and I’m sure that’s true, because I think I do have a bit of a “voice that carries.” I actually kind of like that word because I think, in addition to the obvious allusion to noise-level, I’m a firm believer in not “half-assing” things. So, whatever I’m doing, I want to do it loudly. And – not to get too into this analogy, but I also like to have a lot of different things going on, in terms of volume. I’ve done my best, especially since being back in Kansas City, to stay involved in some things that have nothing to do with medical school and that’s been really great.
What do you do in your free time?
I’m pretty active in the church I’ve really enjoyed being part of a transition to a new church campus at Church of the Resurrection – Overland Park. I also really like music! And then my happy place is working on old cars. That’s my favorite thing that my dad and I used to and continue to do together. In fact, some of my best memories in my entire life are working in the garage with my dad and my grandpa, Hank Williams (let’s be clear – it was Hank Sr., not Hank Jr.) on in the background…
What are you passionate about?
My passion is access to healthcare and access to medicine. I want to, to the best of my ability and to the best of our ability as a state and nation, for that matter, equalize health outcomes between all populations. And that’s among all populations – along racial lines, along gender lines, along location-based lines, and along socioeconomic lines. And there’s a number of ways we can do this, I think. I want to see if we can’t work within existing policy frameworks (that’s not to say that policy change shouldn’t happen in some cases, but let’s say we keep policy constant for this discussion) and ask ourselves “How can the existing health care system solve some of these problems that we see?” I think it’s easy to jump to big-picture policy changes. It’s easy to jump to Medicare For All or Medicaid expansion, but without even touching those discussions, how can the current health care systems, how can current physicians, and how can students help to bridge the gaps we have?
What inspires you?
I’m inspired by the way in which the world works in a synergistic way, even when it doesn’t appear that it is. I am inspired by how all these different facets of life come together to make good in the world. I’m inspired by my faith – that plays a huge role for me. I’m inspired by my mentor, Benjamin Anderson, and something he used to say, “I’m going to make the crooked way straight”. Related to that saying, Ben has this story he tells – he lived in poverty in his childhood, and he remembers praying growing up, “God, if you can just get me out of this, if you can get me out of poverty, I will spend the rest of my life sending the elevator back down for the next person”. It’s very spiritual, which is great, but it doesn’t have to be – I will just spend the rest of my life sending the elevator down for the next person. Unlike Benjamin, I grew up in a world of privilege, not poverty. What can I do with the gifts I have been given to “Send the elevator back down…?
What do you want your legacy to be?
That’s a tough question because I feel like sometimes people are too focused on what legacy they want to leave, and I think the legacy that you leave is one that you should leave naturally. Once I was talking with a student at K-State, and I’ll never forget it because he was talking about challenges that he had, and he told me, “Jack, you’re the only person out of this whole group who made me feel like I mattered and that you actually cared about what I had to say”. And I say that not to toot my own horn, but to say that I have never felt so accomplished than when he said that. No award or accolade could compare to knowing that you made somebody feel loved and respected. So, if I could maximize the number of people that feel that way – then yeah, I would consider that a success.
What are three things you are loving right now?
In this chaotic season of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to focus on the bad. A lot of things right now, in fact, are very bad. However, if I could, I want to comment on three of the good things that I am loving right now. First, people seem to be focusing on the things that matter. When you don’t have the luxury of spending time with friends and going out, phone calls become sacred. Second, we are talking very openly as a society about wellbeing. CBCL facilitators are taking 5-10 minutes to just ask students, “Hey, are you doing okay?” For the first time that I have seen it, technology seems to be enhancing human interaction instead of hindering it. That’s something I am loving. Finally, I am loving seeing people, as a school, as a metro area, and as a nation take initiative to care for one another. I hope that whenever this pandemic is past us, we don’t forget the burning drive that we feel in this moment to reach out and take care of our fellow man.