In his wildest dreams, Kelly VanDeWalker, CBET, never believed he could get to this point. A BMET V at Indianapolis-based Community Health Network, VanDeWalker recently received the AAMI/GE Healthcare BMET of the Year Award at the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) conference—an honor he attributes wholly to hard work. VanDeWalker’s nearly 3 decades of devotion to the biomed profession was honored late last month at an awards luncheon during AAMI’s annual conference in Tampa, Fla, which also saw six other industry heavyweights honored for specific contributions to the field. Given annually since 1989, his award comes accompanied by an engraved plaque, a check for $1,500, and entry into a select pantheon of distinguished biomeds lauded for their outstanding careers of guidance, dedication, and technical acumen. One need only take into account the fact that selection is often so tight for the award that AAMI does not disclose other nominees (but may, however, encourage the renomination of particularly close contenders in future years) to recognize how coveted the award has become. In addition to requiring that candidates hold BMET employment, AAMI also looks for achievement and excellence through specific contributions to the profession when making its selection. Nominators can demonstrate their candidate’s devotion to the field in numerous ways, from their published works to their proven problem-solving abilities, or through participation in noteworthy studies or projects. In particular, VanDeWalker was chosen by AAMI for his philanthropy—as a dedicated refurbisher and donator of used medical equipment—as well as for his leadership in the Indiana Biomedical Society (IBS), and his work as a mentor to biomed students finishing up their education.
The Resident Expert
Like many biomedical equipment technicians, VanDeWalker entered the profession after a stint with the armed forces. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he worked as a weapons control technician with the US Air Force, helping repair F-4 Phantoms. Afterward, despite no prior experience working with medical equipment, he landed a job as a biomed with a small shared service organization in Urbana, Ill, where he quickly picked up the trade. Subsequently, VanDeWalker has spent much of his career as a biomed at Community Health (formerly Community Hospital Network), with occasional strays into the private sector. At Community Health, VanDeWalker now serves as the hospital’s resident expert on all things biomed. “I am what’s classified as the subject matter expert,” he says. “I do a lot of installations, research for equipment, incident investigations—a number of things.” These other duties include managing outside service contracts and supervising biomed interns from nearby Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and Vincennes University. His work with interns actually provided the catalyst for his AAMI award nomination. Barbara Christe, MS, an associate professor in the biomedical engineering technology department at IUPUI, gathered up support from friends and local colleagues and threw VanDeWalker’s hat into the ring largely because of his work with her biomed students.
“He really has been a leader as well as a mentor,” Christe says. “Kelly does an amazing job of shaping and molding them. He’s very talented technically and has the ability to show that to students through mentoring.”
Currently, VanDeWalker mentors a handful of aspiring biomeds each semester, showing them the ropes in an intensive 200-hour internship program that in many ways mirrors his own demanding schedule. “They go to the same meetings I do, and if we go off-site, they go off-site with me,” he says. “They’re with me all the time, if I can have it that way.”
VanDeWalker’s patience and enthusiasm for teaching likely stem from his own positive mentorship experience. Early in his career, he was taken under the wing of one of his first biomedical engineering bosses, George Lewis of Savoy, Ill-based B.E.S.T. Inc. “George gave me a lot of his time and passed on a lot of his expertise, and I was very thankful for that,” VanDeWalker says. “George didn’t have to do that for me. He could have said, ‘You have to learn it on your own,’ but he didn’t operate like that. I feel like I’m somewhat tolerant of the students as they come in, and I try to teach them in the same way George taught me.”
While the pace may seem overwhelming at first, interns often relish the opportunity to jump in feet first and tackle real-world experience. “Some stay over longer because they want to learn more,” he says. “I’ve had quite a bit of that.”
VanDeWalker’s altruism does not stop with his students. For decades he has also assisted struggling veterinary clinics and wildlife centers by putting refurbished medical equipment tossed by hospitals into grateful hands. Often the clinics VanDeWalker coordinates with, such as the nonprofit Wildcat Wildlife Center in Delphi, Ind, operate on lean budgets, and funds are not always handy for expenses like medical devices.
“We’re a nonprofit on a shoestring,” says Carol Blacketer, Wildcat Wildlife’s founder and director, who has struck up a friendship with VanDeWalker over the 15 years she has received his contributions and support. “He has provided everything that we would possibly need, from equipping our surgery suite to x-ray equipment and developers.”
To meet these clinics’ needs, VanDeWalker must often choreograph an impressive dance to match veterinary clinics’ wants with hospitals’ discards. “There’s always a wish list,” he says. “Sometimes you can fill it, sometimes you can’t.”
Once he receives a request from a clinic, VanDeWalker gets to work by pressing his extensive list of contacts at area hospitals and private companies to locate outdated equipment before it hits the trash bin. VanDeWalker then works with reps to get the equipment donated, so that he can fix it up and drop it off. “A lot of companies are very receptive to it once they find out what it’s going to be used for,” he says.
In addition to work with Wildcat Wildlife, VanDeWalker has also assisted various other veterinary clinics. Part of his dedication stems from an interest in animals, but overall VanDeWalker simply enjoys helping out where he can.
“He and his wife are very philanthropic,” Blacketer says. “They both support each other in their interests, which is a lot to say for a couple. He knows these animal organizations can’t get this equipment anywhere else.”
VanDeWalker tends to agree. “They don’t get a lot of help from this side,” he remarks on the meager support veterinary clinics typically receive from human hospitals. “I keep an ear open to see who’s screaming the loudest and try to go there.”
When he learned of his AAMI award win, VanDeWalker was characteristically humble. “I think it’s a huge honor,” he says. “They work hard at picking these recipients. I’m sure there were a lot more people in the world that were more deserving than myself.” But a phrase lifted out of his colleague Steve Erdosy’s letter of support to AAMI, which was repeated during the awards ceremony, hits on exactly why VanDeWalker may have been the perfect choice: “Kelly VanDeWalker bleeds biomed.”
Read past Focus On articles in the 24×7 archives.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his dedication to the IBS, where he has served in various leadership roles—including four terms as president—throughout the past decade. He currently serves on the board and continues to influence its future direction. Much like at his day job, VanDeWalker has become a leading authority at IBS. “Whether it be in regards to just the society or work related, Kelly is the highest-level tech you’ll find,” says current IBS President Matt Dimino. “He’s intelligent, he’s got the engineering background, and he’s intuitive. You don’t question Kelly.”
Even during downtime, it is clear that VanDeWalker genuinely enjoys his industry. “I like to go fishing when I get some time,” he remarks on one of his favorite hobbies. “In fact, I have a fishing trip coming up with—believe it or not—the biomeds at one of the convening hospitals.”
It is this dedication, and the hope of inspiring a new generation of biomeds, that pushed Christe to seek out recognition for VanDeWalker. “He just oozes biomed,” she says. “Everything he does is very focused on expanding the career. It really filters into all aspects of his life. That’s probably a characterization that I think everyone at the [AAMI] show found very profound. People came up to him after and joked ‘Are you bleeding?’ ”
Stephen Noonoo is the associate editor of 24×7. Contact him at .