Written by Nancy Sokoler Steiner | Photographed by Siri Berting
When a doctor can’t figure out the cause of a patient’s condition, he or she turns to a physician with advanced training in infectious disease—the specialty of James McKinnell, MD. Like television’s fictional Dr. House, Dr. McKinnell scrutinizes a patient’s symptoms, lab tests, health history and other factors to uncover the rare or complex infection or virus causing the problem.
“When it comes to infectious disease, coming to the right diagnosis is the first step to bringing someone back from the brink of death,” he says. “What I like best about infectious disease is we frequently achieve a complete cure. These patients go home and live a full life.”
Dr. McKinnell says Torrance Memorial Medical Center offers the resources and environment he needs to perform his job, thanks in great part to the Torrance Memorial Foundation. “Torrance Memorial has some of the best laboratory testing capacities in all of Los Angeles County. We have the best microbiology machines. We have the most innovative diagnostic platforms. We have a phenomenal pharmacy with all the medications needed. It really has become the ideal place to practice.”
Appreciation of Torrance Memorial is one of the reasons Dr. McKinnell and his wife, Colleen, participate in the Young Physicians and Professionals Alliance (YPPA). The group raises funds for specific programs or projects within the medical center. You could call Dr. McKinnell a super supporter of YPPA—he’s served as the physician chair of the group for close to a decade.
“YPPA makes very effective use of the funds. We support specific programs or buy key equipment that may be relatively small in price but have a large impact on patient care,” says Dr. McKinnell, who currently cochairs the group with attorney Stephanie Bezner. Projects supported or enabled by YPPA include emergency evacuation kits for the neonatal intensive care unit; care kits for the eating disorders medical unit; the Daisy Award, which recognizes nurses; and The Reason is You Award, which recognizes outstanding patient service.
However, YPPA is more than a fundraising group. “It’s a great social network where you can meet like-minded young professionals,” says Colleen. Dr. McKinnell agrees it provides a way for busy physicians to form new friendships.
In addition, gathering socially and forming relationships enhances physicians’ communication when they collaborate on patient care. He also finds it helpful to meet other professionals whose services he might need, such as a financial planner or real estate agent.
Dr. McKinnell has been a member of the infectious disease team at Torrance Memorial for 12 years. Before the pandemic, he taught at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and maintained a research practice developing novel methods of preventing infections in skilled nursing homes and long-term care facilities. He also built a company providing infection control in such facilities. Dr. McKinnell switched to full-time clinical work at the hospital in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
His clinical expertise is matched by his bedside manner. Dr. McKinnell recently earned The Reason is You Award, which recognizes outstanding patient care by any hospital employee. A patient nominated him “for comforting me when I was so nervous and anxious about what was going on in my body. He reassured me the team would do everything possible to find out what was going on. Dr. McKinnell, you have no idea how much your words comforted me and gave me hope and peace.”
“To have someone take the time to tell you that you made a difference in their life means a lot,” says Dr. McKinnell.
Dr. McKinnell knew he wanted to be a doctor from about the age of 14. The precocious teenager even knew he wanted to specialize in infectious diseases. This was during the time of HIV being widespread, and he recognized the great need for infectious disease physicians. Educated at Stanford and Columbia universities, he became attracted to the Southern California beach lifestyle while completing his residency at Harbor-UCLA.
The ocean drew Dr. McKinnell and Colleen together eight years ago, and it’s something they enjoy as a couple. Colleen is a scuba diving instructor, and the couple’s second date—the one that sealed the deal—was night scuba diving for lobsters at Veterans Park.
“It’s our favorite shared hobby,” says Colleen. The newlyweds spent their honeymoon diving off the islands of Palau, an archipelago in the Micronesia region. Other diving destinations include Bali, Belize, Fiji, Hawaii and Mexico.
“It’s otherworldly, peaceful and calming” beneath the water, says Colleen. An animal lover, she enjoys seeing aquatic life. Colleen worked as a dive safety officer at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach prior to having the couple’s now-2-year-old daughter, Caroline. She continues to teach and volunteer there.
Dr. McKinnell appreciates the world that exists beneath the surface. “When people stand at the beach, many see just the waves and the sunset,” he says. “We like to view it with an awareness of what’s under the water—the unique other world.”
The McKinnells live in the city of Rolling Hills on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where their 2-acre property is home to 20 chickens, hundreds of bees and a dog. Colleen is a master gardener and maintains extensive raised vegetable gardens and a fruit orchard that includes nectarine, peach, plum, avocado, grapefruit, apple and pomegranate trees. She volunteers with the county to teach gardening classes and staff information booths.
“Caroline loves helping,” Colleen says about her daughter. “The other day she helped me put sand in the coop. She helps with watering the chicks and refreshing their food and picks fruit from the orchard.”
Dr. McKinnell sums up the couple’s philosophy regarding food and nature: “We’re moving beyond the routine urban experience to get closer and more intimate with the natural world around us.”
Whether stalking mysterious infections, exploring the sea floor or running his hand through the soil, Dr. James McKinnell knows there’s so much more to life than what meets the eye.