Just breathe

Jenny Keely, the director of MU’s undergraduate respiratory therapy program, brings experience, compassion and black-and-gold roots.

Jenny Keely demonstrates respiratory therapy equipment to a student in the lab

"Jenny’s online and didactic classes explode with relevant and engaging active-learning experiences,” said Kathy Moss, department chair and professor of clinical and diagnostic sciences (not pictured). “She is the wasabi on the sushi.”

Oct. 10, 2022
Contact: Marcus Wilkins, wilkinsm@missouri.edu

Jenny Keely has always been acutely aware of “flow.” Most days, that means oxygen coursing through tubes of the cutting-edge equipment she helps students master as a respiratory therapy instructor. Other times, it’s Keely’s own breath coaxing delicate notes from her cherished flute.

Even her life’s geographical path has mostly “flowed” longitudinally — from her birthplace in Spencer, Iowa, to southeastern Kansas, to northwestern Missouri, to San Antonio and ultimately Columbia.

During Keely’s nontraditional route from enrollment to commencement — which included service with the U.S. Air Force along the way — going with the flow has often meant simply following her heart.

“There are so many facets of my life that would not have happened if I hadn’t chosen the University of Missouri,” said Keely, who was recently appointed director of the School of Health Professions’ undergraduate respiratory therapy program. “I wouldn’t have met my husband. I wouldn’t have been in the Air Force Band. I probably wouldn’t even be a respiratory therapist.

“This is exactly the place where I needed to be.”

Instrumental moments

Music has been in Keely’s blood from a young age. She first picked up the flute in the fifth grade and often escaped into classical pieces whenever she was feeling introverted. As a teenager, Strauss and Tchaikovsky cassettes perpetually scrolled in her Walkman, and she loved recreating the haunting flute lines from the Poltergeist score.

When Keely wasn’t playing musical notes, she was reading footnotes — and diagrams and descriptions — in a popular medical tome.

“When I was 13, my dad bought me Gray’s Anatomy — the textbook, not the TV show — at Waldenbooks, and I was fascinated by the different systems in the human body and how they interact,” Keely said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but the seed for a career in health care had been planted.”

Keely had options, through scholarships and connections, to attend smaller universities virtually free of charge. But she set her sights on a bigger, brassier institution.

“The Kansas City Star did a feature on Marching Mizzou in 1988, and it seemed so awesome,” Keely said. “I submitted an application, got accepted and my dad was tickled that I was going to a Big Eight school. He had planned to attend the University of Iowa, but life happened, and he always regretted not going. He was so proud of me.”

As a music major at MU from 1991–94, Keely’s life revolved around Jesse Hall, the Fine Arts Building, residence halls, Tiger football games and band parties. She also met her trumpet-playing future husband, John Keely — currently senior associate director of student support services in the MU Office of Admissions.

As much as Keely loved her Mizzou experience, she felt uncertain about her college and career path. When she saw a flyer outside a professor's office advertising the U.S. Air Force Band of the West, she mailed an audition cassette and landed the gig.

side-by-side photos of jenny keely playing flute - one for Mizzou and one for the air force band

Left: Jenny Keely played piccolo for Marching Mizzou three years and lists music professor emeritus Steve Geibel as a major influence on her career.
Right: Keely plays flute at a Fourth of July concert with the U.S. Air Force Band of the West.

Keely was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, but she remained committed to eventually returning to finish her MU degree. When a severe case of bronchitis led to an asthma diagnosis that would ultimately prevent reenlistment, Keely’s interest in respiratory therapy was piqued.

“Although I loved music, I decided I didn’t want to continue with a music degree,” Keely said. “I was still intrigued by the idea of being a part of a health care team — a different kind of ensemble. Perhaps my diagnosis played a part in it, but the pamphlet photos of therapists running the ventilators fascinated me. So, I re-enrolled at Mizzou as a 26-year-old Air Force veteran.”

Skilled conductor

In 1999, Keely dove into Mizzou’s respiratory therapy program and found her true calling. After graduation, she worked night shifts at Boone Hospital, welcomed the first of her and John’s three children and took a daytime job at MU Health Care in 2006 before returning to the classroom as a clinical professor in 2008.

Keely has done a bit of everything in that time. She has managed the ventilators of patients of all ages, administered aerosolized medications, performed lung expansion and airway-clearance therapy, and drawn blood from countless wrists. She has also held hands with patients drawing their last breaths and intubated premature babies taking their first ones — all experiences she brings to the classroom.

One of Keely’s former students, Jaeden Johnsen, credits Keely with the most transformative moment of her academic career. During clinical rotations her junior year, Johnsen and Keely were on hand for a particularly challenging code blue at University Hospital. Suddenly thrust into the line of personnel called upon to administer chest compressions in two-minute intervals, Johnsen froze up.

“I had so much adrenaline flowing, I hesitated,” Johnsen said. “Jenny looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You have all the training and skills. You can do this.’ She gave me the confidence I needed — and maybe a little nudge forward — before I took my turn with the patient.”

For Keely, such moments are a harmonic confluence of experience, teaching skills and perhaps a mother’s intuition. It’s a memory of mentorship and revelation that makes the tears flow.

“It’s amazing to see students go from bystanders to lifesavers,” Keely said. “And when I witness these moments at Mizzou, I just wish I could tell their parents, ‘You should see your kid now. You should see your kid now.’”

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