Kameno Bell: A True American Hero
By Mike Pearson
Webster’s dictionary defines the word hero as “a person of distinguished valor in danger; a prominent or central personage in any remarkable action or event; hence, a great or illustrious person.”
As a gritty Fighting Illini football running back from 1989-91, Kameno Bell experienced a handful of gridiron moments when his performance was measured by sportswriters as being exemplary. However, those past exploits pale in comparison to the level of intrepidness to which he’s risen over the past several weeks.
Today, Dr. Bell can indisputably be labeled as a true American hero, battling the horrific disease known as COVID-19, day after day after day.
Since 2007, he’s served as an Emergency Medicine Physician at New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center. Located just 10 miles from the world’s COVID-19 epicenter in New York City, Bell has personally experienced a tidal wave of tragedy since the first disease-related death was reported on March 14. And while the dreaded curve appears to finally be flattening, he says that the end may be far into the future.
“We’re still in it,” Bell said this past weekend. “I’m looking at the COVID tent right now. In fact, I’m looking at one of my colleagues who’s in full PPE (personal protective equipment) with his face mask and his respirators. They’re still coming in, but we’re not as overwhelmed as we were prior. There were several days when we had patients in the hallway that could have possibly been COVID. Fortunately, our hospital did a good job of amping up and preparing. We increased our capacity by 40 or 50 percent and got a lot more hospital beds. I think it’s been a successful campaign of telling people to stay home. We’re still full, but we have a good way of triaging patients, discharging them if they don’t need to be here or quickly admitting them if they need to stay in.”
Bell had an early mild exposure to the virus, seeing a patient who didn’t have the symptoms but ended up being declared positive a few days later. And though Bell didn’t display any symptoms himself, he was quarantined in his basement for a week (a total of 14 days from the exposure). Since he never displayed or evolved into any symptoms, he’s been back to work for several days now.
Growing up in Chicago, Kameno Bell was introduced to the medical profession by his parents at an early age. His mother, Shirley Walker, was a longtime hospital administrator, and his stepdad, 1960s Illini track and field star George Walker, is still a practicing dentist.
“The fact that I was around the medical field may have influenced him more than I realized,” Shirley Walker said. “I was surprised when he went to school to study medicine.”
It was just Kameno and his mom for the first 12 years of his life.
“She met George and got remarried,” Bell said. “He was a practicing dentist and I remember asking him how he got to that point. He mentioned that he taken biology in college.”
It was in a biology class where Bell practiced his first “surgery”.
“I really liked dissecting frogs and that kind of thing,” he said.
Then, young Kameno discovered football, and joined the squad at Chicago’s Whitney Young High School. Ironically, a personal injury in his senior year caused him to further investigate a career in medicine.
“I got hurt and was initially diagnosed with having a broken bone,” Bell said. “The coaches told me that my season was over. Then, I got reevaluated by an orthopod sports guy and he diagnosed it as a bad sprain. He said I could come back, but with pain as a limiting factor. That experience lit a light bulb for me and got me thinking that I could turn my interest in biology into a career in medicine.”
Bell eventually received an invitation from then Illini assistant coach Tim Harkness to be a preferred walk-on for Illinois.
Illini teammate Chris Green, a defensive back, was first introduced to Bell on the practice field.
“At first, I really didn’t know who he was because he wasn’t part of the recruited crowd,” Green said. “Then I played against him as a member of the scout team and I was like ‘WHOA! Who’s this kid?,’ Kameno definitely made his presence known and he was able to earn a scholarship the hard way.”
Current Illini running backs coach Mike Bellamy grew up with Bell in the same Chicago neighborhood, but played for rival high school teams.
“The day I announced my commitment to Illinois was the same day Kameno told me he was going to Illinois, so our paths have been connected for 25-30 years,” Bellamy said.
Bell toiled behind Howard Griffith for the majority of his career, but the self-proclaimed “late bloomer” came into his own as a senior in 1991.
“I did very well in the first game,” Bell recalled of his 108-yard, two-touchdown performance against East Carolina. “Afterwards, Coach (John) Mackovic told me that ‘We’ll just switch you to Howard (Griffith)’s position now. Seems like you can do the same thing.’ I was happy to be a contributor.”
Following his 664-yard rushing/503-yard receiving performance in 1991, he was named as Illinois football’s Most Valuable Player. Bell was surprised to get an invitation to the NFL combine and was eventually selected in the twelfth round of the ’92 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins.
Still, Kameno knew that his shelf life in football was limited. He had set his sights on medical school and took his initial entrance exam while in preseason camp with the Dolphins.
“I hadn’t studied at all,” Bell remembered, “but my Mom was bugging the mess out of me. My coach found out about it and he gave me the day off from camp and I went down to Florida International (University) in sweats and took the test. I had a hat on my head so that nobody would recognize me.”
Once he eventually got accepted into med school, Bell knew that it was time to go on with the rest of his life. He graduated from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2000, earning money on the side as a Chicago Public School substitute teacher.
After his first year as an intern at Chicago’s Rush Presbyterian Hospital, Bell switched from general surgery to emergency medicine. Following a Fellowship in sports medicine at Indiana University’s Indianapolis medical school in 2006, he was approached by Ronnie Barnes, head athletic trainer for the New York Giants, and a good friend of former Illini coach Denny Marcin, then the Giants defensive line coach. Today, Bell continues as a medical consultant for the Giants.
Since 2007, Bell has been an attending physician in Hackensack. He also serves an assistant professor at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University and as a professor for the Saint George University School of Medicine.
Bell’s family includes his wife, Kenyanna Scott Bell – VP, Associate General Counsel at ADP. They have three girls, ages 10, eight and six.
A few years ago, Kameno was joined in the medical community by his younger brother, Dr. Garth Walker, now an emergency physician at Chicago’s Jesse Brown Medical Center. Garth is a big fan of his big brother.
“I was late in deciding on medicine, but knowing that Kameno was in medical school made the goal seem achievable,” Walker said. “As a mentor, he provided me with great advice.”
Kameno Bell’s former Illini teammates swell with pride when talking about their good friend.
“His is really an amazing story,” said Howard Griffith. “Going to med school and all of that was never easy for him, but he stayed with it. Kameno worked just as hard as anybody could. It was similar to being a walk-on. He wasn’t afraid of that either. Now he’s on the front line helping out in New York and New Jersey. While we all wish we weren’t in this type of situation with COVID-19, to see Kameno using his skills and helping save people’s lives is unbelievable. And to stay in the fight when he has a young family, we’re all really proud of him.”
– ILLINI –