Lessons learned at SDSBVI led alum to career in medical innovation
ABERDEEN, S.D. – Studying at the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired taught Dr. Pat Kelly how to succeed, but it also provided another important lesson—it allowed him to fail.
“It allowed me to figure out when I did fail, I could get back up and succeed later,” Kelly said. “It set the stage for my future.”
That future led him to a position as master surgeon and executive director of commercialization at Sanford Health, where he has invented medical devices that are saving lives around the world.
Recently back in Aberdeen for the SDSBVI all-school reunion, Kelly reflected on the positive impact the school had on him—particularly the teachers, who gave students all the tools they needed to accomplish their goals.
“You’d think they’re going to be here to hold your hand—they’re not,” Kelly said. “They’re here to support you, to help you learn how to navigate through the world on your own.”
Originally from Milbank, Kelly attended SDSBVI starting in eighth grade because he was struggling with learning problems that were thought to be visual. Though it ended up being primarily dyslexia, the school was able to help him with many issues. He graduated from SDSBVI in 1986.
After graduation, Kelly said he first considered becoming a draftsman because he had an interest in drawing and architecture. But a teacher, Jean Kaul, told him he could go to college and become an engineer.
“At that time to me that was an inconceivable possibility to go to college,” said Kelly, who was the first in his family to graduate from high school.
But his teacher’s encouragement helped him have faith in himself and showed him he can succeed.
“All somebody needs is one success, and that breeds the next success,” Kelly said. “It gives you the confidence to go out for that next challenge.”
Since then, Kelly has tackled challenge after challenge: graduating from college and becoming an engineer; going through medical school and becoming a surgeon; and finally, taking on his current role in medical innovation.
His years at SDSBVI helped equip him for this position.
“Having gone to the South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired where you learn how to pull yourself up, you learn how to fail and get back up and test those boundaries, it really set a framework to solve problems,” Kelly said.
Now, Kelly’s innovations are solving several problems in the medical field. That includes a stent graft system for fixing thoracic aneurysms, a device that dropped the mortality rate for this condition from 20 percent down to 2 percent. Kelly is also developing products to prevent ulcers on the feet and to make it easier, safer and faster to take care of patients who have blood clots that travel to their lungs. He also helps guide other physicians through the patent process to commercialization.
It’s About Community
When speaking at the reunion, Kelly told SDSBVI students, alums, faculty and staff that the school itself isn’t just a building, but rather the community of people inside that building.
“We have to remember that that community is not constrained by four walls,” he said. “It’s not the walls that make up the community; it’s the activities, it’s the memories that happen inside that wall that grow this community.”
Now as that community prepares to move to a new building, he said, there are going to be new opportunities. So much has changed over the years, and the students at SDSBVI today face different challenges than students did in the past. Kelly said the new facility will be much more equipped to care for that student population.
“I hope everybody is as excited as I am that this community and school is alive and healthy and is going to continue on,” Kelly said, “so that people can take care of students with visual impairments in South Dakota so they can grow up to become active members of society.”
Educational Impact Campaign
The new school is one of three projects of the Educational Impact Campaign, a collaboration with Northern State University that also includes the completed Athletic and Recreation Fields and the soon-to-be-constructed Regional Sports Complex. The $55 million campaign has raised more than $50 million so far.
Kelly is happy that people are investing in SDSBVI because, he said, it takes a facility like that to foster individuals like himself, whose careers can have far-reaching impacts.
“If this facility didn’t exist, maybe I wouldn’t have had the impact my career has had. Some of the things that we’ve invented are going to have a worldwide impact—not just for South Dakota, but for the U.S. and for the world,” he said. “You don’t know which student is going to come through that door and you’re going to change their life so much that their life changes everybody else’s lives.”
About Northern State University
Northern State University is a regional university that offers outstanding academics and exceptional extracurricular activities at an affordable price on a safe, welcoming campus. Northern State recently announced its Educational Impact Campaign, with a goal of raising $55 million for a new South Dakota School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, new athletic and recreation fields, and an on-campus regional sports complex. Once the campaign is complete, NSU will be the recipient of more than $100 million in privately funded building projects and scholarships within a decade. To learn more, visit NSU Admissions.