man playing guitar with granddaughter

Following in dad's footsteps

June 17, 2021 | Drew Farrington
UCI Health dermatologist Dr. Kristen Kelly is flanked by her heroes: father and dean emeritus of the UCI School of Medicine, Thomas Cesario, and mother, occupational therapist Mary Cesario.

Dr. Kristen Kelly, center, wasn't always keen on a medical career. But the examples set by her father, Thomas Cesario, MD, at left, and mother, Mary Cesario, an occupational therapist, at right, carried the day. Photo for UCI Health. 

For Dr. Kristen Kelly, a life in healthcare wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

She knew she wanted to help people. That part was obvious. She’d absorbed that ethos watching her father, UCI Health infectious disease specialist Dr. Thomas C. Cesario, emeritus dean of the UCI School of Medicine.

“I’ve always had great respect for the work he’s done caring for people,” says Kelly, a UCI Health dermatologist and chair of the medical school’s Department of Dermatology.

“I got to see the impact he had on people's lives and how much they appreciated the work he did. That’s the kind of person I wanted to be.”

But her dad worked long hours. Between seeing patients, spending time in the lab and teaching classes, it wasn’t uncommon for him to put in 80 hours a week or more. Kelly wondered if that was the work-life balance she wanted.

“Some people know their whole lives they want to work in healthcare,” she says. “Not me.”

Commitment to patients and family

Even with four children, her parents made it work. She remembers her father’s long hours, but never his absence.

“Dad worked very hard and he still does,” she says of Cesario, who served as medical school dean from 1994 to 2006. “But he was always around for us. If I needed him, I called him and he’d pick up. He still does. He’s always been there.”

It’s a sentiment Cesario shares when thinking about the occasional school plays and games he missed. “I always felt that the responsibilities of my role as physician, a role I loved, required my presence elsewhere. Fortunately this was something my family understood.”

He credits the children’s mother, Mary Cesario, herself an occupational therapist, as an equal, if not greater, inspiration. “My wife is a wonderful mother,” Cesario says. “A lot of my children’s interests in helping people came from watching her work.”

Choosing a path

While studying psychobiology as an undergraduate at UCLA, Kelly considered the various careers she might pursue. She was passionate about helping people. But was becoming a doctor the right path?

She sought guidance from the people she admired most: her parents. They were maddeningly vague. “I’d float ideas and my parents would say, ‘Think about how you can make the most impact in the world.’”

There were no expectations, only encouragement. “They’d say, ‘Care about what you do, put time into it, be passionate,’” she recalls.

Cesario remembers well the guidance he and his wife offered Kelly and her siblings. “We consciously avoided pressuring them to go in any direction. We just tried to instill in them a desire to help and respect others.”

Envisioning her future

The answer became clearer with time. In her father, she began to see the example of the doctor — and parent — she could become. “I thought, if he can do it, if he can be there for his patients and his family, so can I.”

Kelly attended medical school at UCLA, where she developed a passion for dermatology. After completing her medical training, she followed in her father’s footsteps again, returning to Orange County and UCI as a dermatologist and assistant professor in the medical school.

Last year, the highly regarded physician and researcher was named to lead her department. "Kristen worked very hard and has been very successful in her work, so I was delighted about the recognition she achieved and very pleased for her," Cesario says.

UCI Health Dr. Thomas Cesario poses with his wife, Mary, at a recent wedding with their four children: Dr. David Cesario, Karrie Heneman, PhD, Doug Cesario and UCI Health Dr. Kristen Kelly,

UCI Health Dr. Thomas Cesario, at left, attends a family wedding with his wife, Mary, second from left, and their children: David Cesario, Karrie Heneman, Doug Cesario and Kristen Kelly. Photo credit: Cesario family

Dad’s inspirational influence didn’t end with Kelly.

One brother, Dr. David Cesario, is an interventional cardiologist; sister Karrie Heneman holds a PhD in nutrition and works as a nutritional consultant for children and adults; another brother, Doug Cesario, became a healthcare administrator.

Kelly says none of her three college-age daughters shows a particular interest in medicine. She’s OK with that.

“I’ve watched my kids go into other fields and it’s broadened my outlook. Over time, I’ve seen there are so many ways we can make an impact on the world.” 

As the family prepares for a virtual Father's Day celebration this weekend, Kelly believes her dad's advice still rings true.

“You want your kids to have a sense of responsibility to help out in the world in some way,” she says. “They all have unique capabilities. They will put them to use in a way that’s right for each of them.”

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