The new President and CEO of Affinia Health is now Dr. Kendra Holmes at Affinia's Biddle location Mon. Jan. 8, 2023.

The new President and CEO of Affinia Health is now Dr. Kendra Holmes at Affinia's Biddle location Mon. Jan. 8, 2023.

Kendra Holmes wasn’t trying to be rude or dismissive.

The year was 2006. Holmes, who was 26 at the time and in her final months of pregnancy, worked as a staff pharmacist for Grace Hill Health Centers. Her superiors were making the rounds introducing the new CEO, Alan Freeman.

Holmes had and still has one simple motto: “The patient comes first.” So, on that extremely busy day with a room full of patients, Holmes responded rather abrubtly:

“I said ‘OK, that’s wonderful but I need to take care of my patients.’” she recalled with a chuckle. “He probably thought, ‘who does this Black girl think she is?’”

Apparently, Holmes intrigued Freeman. Shortly after their introduction, when Grace Hill Health Centerswas renamed Affinia Healthcare, Freeman offered Holmes the opportunity to become the director of pharmacy and radiology.

Since then, Holmes has gone from that job to vice president of clinical integration and ancillary services to Senior Vice President/Chief Operating Officer to Vice President/Chief Operating Officer to her new role, as of January 2023, President & CEO for Affinia Healthcare.

It’s been an amazing ascension based on a philosophy of service to patients, especially patients from underserved, marginalized communities. It’s an attitude that has served the St. Louis native, her colleagues, coworkers, and individuals throughout the region extremely well.

The youngest of four girls, Holmes says she was raised in a household with strict Catholic values. The family faithfully attended St. Matthew the Apostle Parish on Sarah Avenue in the city. Her childhood, she recalled, was atypical, detached from the usual stories of poverty and trauma in North St. Louis. As the baby of the family, Holmes said she was “spoiled” by her parents and older sisters. She doesn’t remember ever not being nurtured and loved.

Her parents stressed education in the home and excellence at school. Holmes attended public elementary schools and the high-ranking Metro Academic and Classical High School. Holmes, who described herself as a “nerd” back then, said she was into all things science related. Metro, she said, was a strenuous, competitive school that complemented her attitude.

As a kid, Holmes said she had one major concern:

“My biggest worry was being number one,” she said with a laugh.

“I definitely have a competitive spirit. I think it’s just that I didn’t want mediocrity. I didn’t want to settle for a basic or a boring life. Even at that age, I thought, ‘why not do something impactful.’”

Holmes’ secondary interest was history. She was fascinated with slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction period and African American history in general. Race-based history had a life-long impact on Holmes.

“It made me angry but not in an angry Black woman kind of way,” Holmes explained. “It was an anger against injustice and not just against Black people. I have anger regarding the injustice towards the LGBTQ community and others. I don’t like injustice or certain forms of privilege.”

Holmes considered becoming a history teacher but as a pragmatic youth, she felt a teacher’s salary wouldn’t support the lifestyle she envisioned. So, she turned to a vocation that better suited her ambitions.

“I chose chemistry, medicine and the pharmacy route,” Holmes said, adding: “Because I knew the starting salary for pharmacists would be in the six figures.”

As a young woman, Holmes was also in touch with her true desires.

“I am a people person: I love interacting with patients,” she said. “The chemistry part, the medicinal and organic chemistry parts…were all great fits for me.”

With a full-ride scholarship, Holmes attended St. Louis College of Pharmacy where she earned a doctorate in pharmacy and later completed a Community Health Center Executive Fellowship at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

After graduation from college Holmes did a brief stint with the Medicine Shoppe downtown. It was near St. Patrick Center where she met a priest who was working to make sure the unhoused had access to medication.

The priest told Holmes that Grace Hill was having trouble finding a pharmacist who wanted to work at their city location. As a North St. Louis resident, Holmes eagerly applied for the job even though the salary was nowhere near what she could have made as a retail pharmacist in places like Walgreens or CVS pharmacies.

“I went to a community health center where the salary is probably like $30,000 less,” Holmes recalled. “Because I wanted to be in my community taking care of my community.”

Holmes’ greatest asset perhaps, is her ability to quickly adapt to new challenges. For example, she had little to no expertise when Freeman asked her to head up the  radiology and mammography departments at Affinia. In 2016, Holmes described to the St. Louis American how she rose to that challenge::

“I just took some classes, did a lot of studying and networking with other professionals and, within a year, we had our mammography suite up and we had general radiology in two of our locations.”

It was the same approach when Holmes brought outside lab services in-house where Affinia started processing over 15,000 samples each month. The ability to collaborate with other health care professionals and organizations was paramount as Holmes revamped or redesigned radiology, laboratory, nursing services, security, patient services, managed care incentive programs, pharmacy services and much more at Affinia.

It was during the pandemic when Holmes was challenged most. She detailed an eye-opening reality and a “turning point in her career” with this newspaper in 2021. It started with a number of panel discussions on the impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities. Holmes found the rise in deaths in Black communities disturbing. But the major point for her again was the fact that testing wasn’t readily available in the communities she served.

“I always knew there was discrimination, I always saw the difference in the quality of care for poor people as opposed to more affluent people, I always saw the racial differences,” Holmes recalled.: “But it wasn’t until COVID that it was put right in my face. It was like they were saying ‘look, we’re not going to take care of you. We know you’re going to be disproportionately affected and we’re not going to make you a priority and we’re not going to put resources into your communities. It was just so blatant.”

Holmes said she assumed, wrongfully, that larger, better-funded health organizations would step up and provide testing in underserved communities but, she added, “I only stay frustrated for about an hour, then I get to work.”

By April 2020, Affinia made it a priority to provide COVID-19 testing to the city’s first responders, including EMS, police, and firefighters. Two months later, Affinia had stepped up its game and was providing testing throughout St. Louis city and county, serving almost 30,000 people in 2020 alone. 

Another issue of concern was keeping her staff of 400 employed during the crisis.

“I knew the shutdown was going to affect jobs,” Holmes recalled. “So, on top of ensuring that our community had testing, I wanted to make sure our staff had employment. The last thing I wanted was a lot of single parents living from paycheck to paycheck to be out of work.”

Holmes is proud of the fact that there were no layoffs at Affinia Healthcare during the pandemic. She said with “raises, incentives and bonuses,” everything all worked out wonderfully not only for her staff but the community as well.”

Holmes credits her ascension at Affinia and in the healthcare domain to her effective collaborations, networking, talented staffers and a constant awareness of what patients need and how they want to be treated.

“I think that’s what’s helped me be successful,” Holmes said. “Because I’m from the ‘hood, I can communicate with individuals from impoverished areas. They are comfortable with me, and they trust me because I’ve earned that trust. And then I’m able to take that information and put it into action to provide the services in a manner that will benefit the patient and the community.”

After all these years, Holmes’ motto is the same as it was that fateful day in 2006, when introduced to the new CEO:

“The patient always comes first.”

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