story and photos by Savannah Bearden, Director of Communications Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi
Someone becoming what other people may not think they should be – but who they inherently feel like they are – must feel like being set free.
– Dr. Kimberly Looney, Planned Parenthood Physician
Dr. Kimberly Looney may have been born in Memphis, but her upbringing and education was 100% Nashville— a fact she calls both “exciting and depressing all in the same moment.”
“Literally from my bedroom window, I could see my elementary school, my middle and high school, my undergraduate and my first year of undergraduate school,” Looney laughs. “Then I got accepted into med school, which happened to be across the street from my undergraduate school.”
That med school was Meharry Medical College, one of only four Black medical schools in the country. It sits across the street from her former HBCU, Fisk University.
“I loved Meharry, their mission of serving the underserved, and I loved seeing people that looked like me doing big things and being educated. But I was like… I don’t get out of this block on that.”
Fueled by that restlessness, Looney ventured north to Washington D.C. to do research for the National Institutes of Health, then returned to her Memphis birthplace to become a surgeon at UTHSC Memphis. When she moved to Chicago for her residency, a chance run-in with a former Memphis colleague introduced her to the field of family planning, which focuses on birth control and abortion care.
“I said to her verbatim, ‘Why would you need to do a fellowship in that?’ And she looked me dead in my eyes and said, ‘Did you train where we trained?’ Meaning Memphis. And that’s when it clicked for me,” Looney remembers.
”You know, we saw young parents, women struggling every day. That’s why I need to do this. And so that day, I made the commitment—that’s what I was going to do when I got done with my residency.”
After completing her fellowship training at Emory University in Atlanta, only she and one other person elected to stay in the South to practice family planning.
“Everyone else went up north or out west, of course,” she sighs.
Seeing the void of care in Tennessee and wanting to make an impact, Looney moved back to Nashville and began providing abortion services for Planned Parenthood of Middle and East TN, now Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi (PPTNM).
“You know how you make career goals? When I started working at Planned Parenthood, I said to myself, ‘One day I want to run this.’”
She met that career goal in June 2019, when she came on board as PPTNM’s Chief Medical Officer.
One of her first initiatives in her new role was to expand LGBTQ+ services at PPTNM, including the introduction of gender-affirming hormone (GAH) care statewide via Telehealth. She attributes this to experiences in other clinical settings where she witnessed providers being callous or negative to transgender and non-binary clients—usually due to lack of familiarity or understanding on the clinician’s part.
“That got under my skin,” she asserts. “I don’t really care what the components of a person are. They got a heart, they got a soul, they got a mind— that’s it.”
While PPTNM has served in-person GAH patients at their Nashville and Knoxville health centers for several years, Telehealth appointments are available for anyone in Tennessee, and the Memphis health center will begin in-person GAH services later this spring. In addition, PPTNM offers PrEP, contraception, and other reproductive and sexual wellness services for the LGBTQ+ community.
“There’s a need for affordable care in this area. And that’s where we really are trying to plug the gap,” Looney says. “This is a population— like a lot of other marginalized, minority, and underserved populations— where insurance may not be plentiful or may not be sufficient, even if you are insured. So there are sectors of this population that go without the care they really need and deserve because they just can’t afford it.”
When asked what is the most fulfilling part of bringing these expanded LGBTQ+ services to PPTNM, her eyes begin to tear up.
“There’s a question that we ask every GAH client,” she explains. “Something like ‘Is there anything about your transition that stresses you?’ I remember asking a patient that and their response was ‘No, this is the best I have ever felt in my life because I get to be who I am.’ That really resonated with
me. Someone becoming what other people may not think they should be— but who they inherently feel like they are— must feel like being set free.”
“For me, the most rewarding part is being able to understand the value of someone feeling like they are their true self. It really is.”
To learn more about LGBTQ+ services or make an appointment at Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, visit PlannedParenthood.org/Tennessee or call 866.711.1717.