Dr. Matthew McKenna, 65, public health expert dies

Helped fight HIV, TB as public health leader
Dr. Matthew McKenna, left, talks with colleague Dr. Charbel El Bcheraoui in this undated photo. McKenna played important roles in studying, treating and helping contain diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

Credit: courtesy of family

Credit: courtesy of family

Dr. Matthew McKenna, left, talks with colleague Dr. Charbel El Bcheraoui in this undated photo. McKenna played important roles in studying, treating and helping contain diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV.

Dr. Matthew McKenna was grateful and passionate, about his public health work, his family and his Catholic faith. He retired from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, then worked at the Fulton County Health Department before moving to a teaching position at Emory University’s School of Medicine.

“When he was dying, he told me, ‘I’m sad I don’t get to help more people,’” said his daughter Shannon McKenna. “He wanted to do the most good for the most people, and that’s why he went into public health.”

Matthew McKenna died on March 31 from a glioblastoma, a pernicious type of brain cancer. He was 65, “and was always so healthy,” said Shannon. Colleagues described him as a “vigorous and upbeat,” a very fit guy who ran while others jogged, who rode his bicycle to work, took stairs rather than elevators and who taught his daughter to lift weights with him.

“He had a contagious laugh that drew people in,” said Dr. Bob Brewer, who worked with McKenna at the CDC. “He had well-founded opinions and was very good at whatever he did.”

Born in Baltimore in 1957 to Mary Constance Nasuro McKenna and William T. McKenna, Jr., Matthew Thomas McKenna attended parochial schools and graduated from a Jesuit college, Loyola University Maryland, with a philosophy degree. He thought about becoming a priest, said his wife Dr. Katherine Franch, “but he didn’t feel called.” Instead, she said, her husband lived his Catholic faith daily, treating everyone with compassion and dignity. “He really was the light of Christ,” she said.

The two met in medical school at Emory, where they became friends while sharing a cadaver in anatomy class.

When epidemiologist Dr. William Foege, then director of the CDC, visited Emory and lectured on smallpox eradication, “Matt knew immediately that public health was for him,” Franch said.

The couple married after graduating and moved to Pittsburgh, where McKenna completed a residency in family and preventive medicine and a master’s in public health while Franch trained in general, child and adolescent psychiatry.

The CDC hired him for its Epidemiological Intelligence Service, which deals with the prevention and control of diseases. He initially focused on cancer, while Franch went into private practice. He liked to write and had hundreds of published scientific papers. McKenna worked at the CDC on issues, including HIV/AIDS, TB and tobacco cessation He testified during Congressional hearings on the Ryan White Act, the largest federal program focused on HIV.

When medication-resistant tuberculosis appeared in the U.S., McKenna wondered if international travelers could be bringing the variant from other countries and set up a screening program “and contained it,” said Franch. “He was great at having an idea that translated into prevention.” After working on tobacco control, McKenna was in demand globally and traveled to Pakistan, India and Thailand.

“My dad was very smart and loved his work, but he was also very funny,” said Shannon McKenna. “Sunday nights, our family would watch ‘The Simpsons.’ He loved it, and he thought ‘South Park’ was hilarious.”

In 2010, McKenna retired from the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service and became the medical director of the Fulton County Health Department, where he served for five years. In 2017, Dr. Ted Johnson, chair of Family and Preventive Medicine at Emory University’s medical school, hired McKenna as the division chief of preventive medicine to teach residents and post-doc fellows.

“He came to us after a complete career, with a wealth of knowledge,” said Johnson. “Matt was a breath of fresh air, and the students really liked him. In clinics, he saw anyone who walked through the door, teenagers, adults, older people. He taught students the big picture of health, the patient in front of them and the system that was helping them.”

McKenna had a seizure while he was seeing a patient about four years ago, said Johnson. “He didn’t have a diagnosis yet, but we both knew what it meant to be fine one day and then to have a seizure.” McKenna resigned from Emory after doctors found the glioblastoma. With Franch doing research and finding the best treatment for him, McKenna lived almost four years after diagnosis — most of those with the disease last 18 or fewer months.

Had her husband not gotten sick, “there would have been a lot more good things happening, and he would have given years to Emory,” said Franch. “It’s a great sadness to us that we’ve lost him. He was a wonderful man and a good public servant, and I love him and miss him.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Matthew McKenna is survived by a son, Gregory McKenna, his mother, Mary Alsruhe McKenna, and his sister, Patricia McKenna Sparr. A memorial mass is planned for 10 a.m., June 27 at St. Jude the Apostle Catholic Church in Sandy Springs. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the American Brain Tumor Association (give.abta.org).