Friday city and state officials and representatives from Mercer University will gather on the banks of the Chattahoochee River for the dedication of Mercer’s new School of Medicine campus in Columbus. It opened in January.

The best way to put faces to this story is by introducing two graduates who fell in love with the program and with each other.

Dr. Kristen Kettelhut is a graduate of the Mercer School of Medicine in Columbus who joined Horizons Diagnostics in 2020 as a family care physician.

Dr. Matt Kahrmann is also a Columbus Mercer Medical School graduate. He works right up the hill from Kristen’s office at OBGYN Physician Partners located in St. Francis-Emory Healthcare Hospital.

Kristen recalls the day they met at Mercer. “It was our very first day thanks to alphabetical order…Kahrmann and Kettelhut. We sat down right next to each other.” Matt adds, “We were just good friends throughout all of medical school. Not until we both left for residency did we realize that absence does in fact make the heart grow fonder.”

The couple got married last November in the mountains of North Georgia. They asked their good friend Reverend Jimmy Elder, who’s a member of the Mercer Board of Trustees, to perform the ceremony.

They say Rev. Elder was one of the first people they saw when they came here as medical students on the Columbus campus. Kristen says, “He was just so kind and encouraging of anything that we wanted to do. He’s like my adopted family. He would do anything with us and for us.”

Matt remembers the moment he was standing at the altar during the wedding. “My heart was racing and that’s what I told Rev. Elder. And he said, Matt, that feeling is never going to go away. And he was absolutely right.”

One of the desired by-products of the marriage between Mercer University Medical School and the city of Columbus was that doctors like Matt and Kristen would be attracted to this area and want to practice here.

Matt says the town was so welcoming and inviting. “The two hospitals, St. Francis and what was the Medical Center, now Piedmont, were really welcoming. I have seen so many of the professors and doctors at the two hospitals that are now my colleagues.”

Kristen did her three-year residency in Columbus and the city grew on her. “I loved my time in Columbus so much,” she said. “I got to see firsthand what it was like outside, running on the Riverwalk and walking down Uptown streets and just seeing everything the town had to offer and I felt comfortable here, so I thought…why leave?”

But the attraction went beyond just the amenities. She says, “Half the reason why I stayed is just because of how welcoming the attendings are…the cardiologists, the nephrologists, and all the specialists in this town are toward medical students. They gave me opportunities I don’t know I would have gotten elsewhere because they were excited to teach. In fact, I had one attending who told me…I could be training my future general practitioner. And at the time I was like, really? And now I’m here. It makes me chuckle to think that’s the mindset that really every physician in this town has, which is…how can I make this group of medical students better and grow and just be the best physicians that they can be.”

Kristen envisions the new Mercer Medical School in Columbus as a magnet to attract much-needed specialists. “We don’t have a pediatric intensivist at either hospital. And so I’m hoping that a medical school with faculty positions in attending spots can actually draw more sub-specialty physicians to this town and keep them here because there’s a need. I mean, nobody wants to send their child to Atlanta when they need to have their appendix removed. They want to stay in town.”

Matt adds, “I think we all know that the current physician population is aging in a sense where we will have several that retire soon and that are currently retiring. And it’s to us I think a changing of the guard, an opportunity for rebirth in a sense where we can really, really take what we have been given by the medical school, by our residencies, and use that for the good of our common man…or in my case because I’m an OBGYN…common woman.”