The humble hero

by Walt Windley, Hospice & Palliative Care Lincoln County Chaplain

Jim Kelly pic

Dr. Jim Kelly, the dental miracle worker

Bestselling author and award winner Jodi Picoult writes in her novel Second Glances that “[h]eroes didn’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an outstretched hand; they didn’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or loving.  Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s.  And maybe that one act could lead someone to rescue you right back.”

If you ask Dr. Jim Kelly, he would tell you that he is certainly no hero; in fact, he would probably describe himself as a Gastonia “good ole boy” who loves hunting, fishing, and yes, working with teeth.  For those who know him, they are quick to point out a humble man of deep faith who loves in really big and generous ways.  He kind of fell into the profession, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father, and older brother — graduating from UNC dental school and coming back to the place where his roots grew strong in a local family-owned practice.  Today, he and his wife carry on the tradition in a new shiny building with the same warm smile and Southern hospitality that has so long defined his family name.

His relationship started with hospice about a year ago.  Some would call it an accident, but Dr. Kelly would say his sense of adventure has led him to moments like this.  A local Veteran under hospice services lost an incredible amount of weight rather quickly.  He was primarily bed-bound and was no longer able to leave his home.  His appeal for new dentures had been rejected since the patient was under hospice and “would be dying anyway.”  This patient grew weaker every day and found himself only able to eat extremely soft foods.  He told me that his great wish would be to enjoy a juicy steak one last time — something that seems insignificant to most of us who pull up to any restaurant whenever we get the craving and order at our heart’s delight.  In comes Dr. Jim.  He agreed to see the patient in his home and figured out a plan to grant this final wish, in between the swapping of stories about motorcycles and service to country.  Over a series of a couple of visits, Dr. Kelly would completely grind down and realign this patient’s dentures.  Weeks before he died, a large steak was delivered from Longhorn Steakhouse and completely devoured!

This single experience was enough to get Dr. Kelly hooked.  He would invest in the tools to create his own mobile clinic of sorts, eager to help other hospice patients that may need assistance.  And maybe the best gift of all — he has offered all of his services completely free of charge.  Dr. Kelly has made a significant investment in community and people, seeking to untangle the lives of those in front of him.   And he would say his life has found a deeper sense of meaning and understanding in the process.

There was that patient in an assisted living community whose dentures could be dated back to the 1950’s.  Dr. Jim stepped in to answer the call, working tirelessly with the patient to give him a new smile that became his deepest joy.  He convinced a local lab to donate their time and services as well.  And when the patient needed more than could be offered in the community, Dr. Kelly would help arrange for the patient to be brought into his office and bring in staff early one morning to address all of his needs.  He realized in a man who many had forgotten that his life was worthy of respect and love.

And finally, there is the family to whom he will always be known as “the angel brought from God”.  The patient was an elderly woman with three daughters who served as primary caregivers.  This patient desperately needed to have her dentures realigned but the family feared that she would not survive the transport to the office as she grew increasingly weak.  Dr. Jim agreed to make a visit.  During that first encounter, the patient was nervous; she’d never taken out her dentures in the presence of a man.  Dr. Kelly offered a loving presence, simply engaging in conversation while building rapport.  He visited several times before he even got around to working on her teeth, realizing that socialization was an equally important gift.  The patient did eventually pass away, but she passed away a very happy woman.  She had a freshly aligned set of teeth and enjoyed a marathon of all of her favorite foods during her last weeks.  For her daughters, seeing their mom, who had turned away food time and time again, finally ask for something to eat was simply a miracle.  Their tears spoke volumes, having found some peace in the most unlikely of places.

Dr. Jim hasn’t leapt over any tall buildings, and he certainly hasn’t stopped any flying bullets.  But he has taken the time to listen, to love, and to serve in ways that have left us speechless, all while maintaining his sense of humility and faith.  A valuable relationship has been formed in Gaston County that has rich potential to redefine the ways we think about community.  Never has the power of a smile had more meaning.

Explore posts in the same categories: awareness, cosmetology, end of life, hospice, Hospice & Palliative Care Lincoln County, spiritual care, Veterans, volunteering

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5 Comments on “The humble hero”

  1. Nancy Cole Says:

    What a great story. Thank you Walt, for sharing. It is so good to know there are people like Dr. Jim “out there” – being a super hero to hospice patients in need.

  2. lgf3 Says:


  3. Beth Says:

    What a wonderful story. Dr. Jim in an angel on earth.

    • David R. Stultz Says:

      DRS I have known Dr. JIm all of his life. He is a fine Christian man with a beautiful, honorable family He is respected throughout the community.for his good works and his love of God My family is honored to call him a friend!

  4. Jo Says:

    As a volunteer with Hospice and Community care in Rock Hill, SC , I want to say thank you Dr. Kelly!
    I know what a smile, a kind touch or simple hello can mean to someone! You are truly one of God’s Angels.

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