Soon-to-be dermatologist’s faith is more than skin deep

May 16, 2023
Woman in blue dress sanding under a tree outside in the sunshine
McKenzie Dirr, dressed in Kentucky blue, graduates from MUSC's College of Medicine on May 20. Photo by Sarah Pack

McKenzie Dirr remembers the moment she knew.

It was her sophomore year in high school, and she had just gotten home from spending the day with a man who had solidified all of her intuitions. Though their time together only lasted a couple of hours, it crystalized something deep inside her. 

She remembers watching that ER physician – a family friend who went to their church, who said he’d be more than happy to let the teenager shadow him for a shift – go from room to room, checking on each of his patients. 

“I was blown away by how many things came at him – drug overdoses, vehicular accidents, there was a patient who had a fishhook in his finger – and he showed so much empathy and compassion,” Dirr said. “It was just so inspiring to watch.”

And so the die is cast. Dirr was solely focused on becoming a doctor. In the years that followed, she experienced plenty of highs and her fair share of lows, but what never wavered during that time were her determination or faith. 

On May 20, McKenzie Dirr will make that dream a reality when she graduates from MUSC’s College of Medicine. Finally, at long last, the Kentucky native will become the medical equivalent of the city of New York, the doctor so good they named her twice: M.D., M.D.

The big dance

Of course, no single experience defines us. For Dirr, the night shift she worked alongside Peter Latino, M.D., at the University of Louisville Hospital simply brought into focus the writing that had long been on the wall since she was a little girl, fixing her stuffed animals’ boo-boos in her bedroom. 

Raised in a large Catholic family – one of four siblings – Dirr’s faith is the cornerstone of who she is. In fact, she can’t think of too many Sundays growing up when her family wasn’t at church. As a result, values like hard work, compassion and helping others have been instilled in her so deeply, it makes sense that she would choose a profession that utilized them all to such a great degree.

A man dressed in a suit jacket and khakis and woman in a dark pink dress bookend their daughter who is wearing a flowy pink and white dress 
Dirr, flanked by her parents, at the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society ceremony earlier this year. Photo provided

“My parents always said, ‘We are here to give back,’” she explained. “So it’s just always been something I’ve lived by – kind of like second nature.”

But don’t mistake that kindness for softness. Despite the friendly exterior, Dirr is as tough as they come. And it’s that refusal to quit, to lean in when things get difficult, that have defined who she is her entire life. And nowhere – outside of possibly medical school – was that determination more evident than on the dance floor. 

“I still identify as a retired ballerina,” she said with a laugh. “I just did a workout this morning, and I was dying.”

While most ballet dancers begin at a very young age, Dirr started much later – around the eighth grade. Her mother, an avid dancer who took ballet recreationally for years, had always tried to get her daughter to tag along to one of her classes. Finally, one day Dirr agreed and joined her mom. It was anything but love at first plie.

“Honestly, I was so bad that first time, I had to come back because I couldn’t finish on that note,” she said. 

And come back she did. For the next five years, ballet was the thing that kept her focused, taught her to be more resilient, to work harder. It brought her great friends, newfound confidence. It led her to undergraduate school at the University of South Carolina, a school with strong programs in both dance and biology.

“It helped me realize you get as much out of a day as you can put into it,” she said. “With dancing, you have to learn how to react to difficulty, to deal with constructive criticism. The hours are long, and you can get really exhausted, but you have to keep going. Medicine is the same way. There is no doubt it helped prepare me for medical school.”

Hard work, her faith and her family. Those were everything to Dirr, until six years ago, when she added one more arrow to her quiver: a 6-foot-6 knight in shining pinstripes.

Going the (long) distance

After graduating from USC, Dirr’s friend – who was dating one of the Gamecocks’ baseball players – set her up with one of her boyfriend’s former teammates. 

The first time Dirr met Jordan Montgomery, she remembered liking him right away. More than his easy smile, his laidback attitude, what appealed to Dirr most was his kindness. 

“I think immediately I was like, ‘He's special. He’s sweet. He’s God-fearing, and he gives back to the community,’” she said. “I mean, who wouldn’t be head over heels for that?”

A pretty cool footnote: He was also a starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. 

For the next two weeks, Dirr and Montgomery were inseparable, spending any free moment they had together. Even though he had to leave town two weeks later for the beginning of spring training, the two knew what they had was real. And so began a long-term, long-distance relationship that eventually culminated in their wedding last December.

Two photos, side by side, the left showing a woman in black shirt and white pants in front of dugout on baseball field next to tall man in St. Louis Cardinals baseball uniform 
Dirr and her husband, Major League Baseball pitcher Jordan Montgomery, tied the knot during his offseason. (Left photo provided; right photo by Leslie Rodriguez.)

During the time in between, the two spent as much time together as possible. Anytime she had a free moment, she’d fly up to visit him. “That’s what planes are for,” she laughed. During the offseason, he was always by her side – a ray of sunshine in a chaotic med school lifestyle.

“He was there through it all,” she said. “He saw me after two hours sleep, up all night studying. But he was just always so supportive. I remember a bunch of times he brought me dinner to the library.”

Though their physical differences are immediately obvious – Dirr is petite, Montgomery a towering man – it’s not hard to see why they are so connected. As different as their two passions might be – his, throwing a baseball 95 mph; hers, saving lives – they have three very important things in common.

Hard work, sacrifice and faith – all of which have brought them to this point – a place of opportunity and gratitude.

In March, Montgomery started his first full season with the St. Louis Cardinals. In June, Dirr will head to Boston to do her intern year at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. From there, it’s off to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where she’ll be a part of their dermatology department, something she’s dreamed of for a long time. 

“I’ve always prayed I would land where I was supposed to,” she said. “My prayer was I’d find something I was good at and loved at the same time. And I think that’s just what’s happened.”

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