Living a large life

Doctor has feet firmly on the ground, but his head is, literally, in the clouds

  • Dr. Ken Strike, Bruce Henry, Greg Livengood and Jeff Shelton at the top of Mount Elbert in Colorado last August. Mount Elbert is the highest peak in Colorado and the second highest in the lower 48 states, with an elevation of 14,433 feet.

  • Dr. Ken Strike at the Athens Regional Cancer Center, where he practices radiation oncology three days a week.

  • Dr. Ken Strike paragliding in the airspace around his Andersonville farm.

While Dr. Ken Strike, M.D., would prefer, literally, to have his head in the clouds compared to his feet on the ground, his life is anchored in principles and passions.

In his downtime, when the board-certified radiation oncologist isn’t treating cancer patients, he may be found paragliding in the airspace around his Andersonville home or conquering the challenge of climbing a high Colorado mountain.

Strike’s most recent challenge, however, wasn’t a 14,000-foot mountain. Like many in the medical arena, Strike, 57, went to work battling an unseen invader that won’t soon be forgotten: COVID-19, a coronavirus causing a global pandemic. Strike’s immediate concerns were for family and cancer patients who could not miss daily radiation treatments.

“This pandemic affected my life in that my family went into lockdown early on in the process, mostly because we wanted to do everything we possibly could to protect the older members in our family,” Strike said.

“We have several close relatives in their 70s and 80s and didn’t want to be responsible for transmitting the virus to them.”

Strike said he and his wife, Patti, and daughter, Cori, have been strict in their separation from society the past two months as they spend quality time having meals together, playing games and watching television, things that didn’t happen often in their lives before COVID-19. “Before, we didn’t have the time to do these things, now we make the time,” he said.

At Athens Regional Cancer Center, where Strike practices three days a week, new protocols include approved face masks for himself, the staff and his patients.

Other changes include allowing only one patient at a time in the office. The patients wait in their cars and are called in accordingly, he said.

“The vast majority of our patients are profoundly immunocompromised and I don’t see any way they could battle this virus and their cancer at the same time,” he said.

“Cancer is relentless, it doesn’t care about the patient or any pandemic. It’s exceptionally important they get to all their appointments if they want to have a chance of beating it,” said Strike, who drives three hours round trip to Athens from his Andersonville home.

Strike looks forward to returning to his active lifestyle, which he placed on hold.

As often as possible, he can be found riding on and off road—and sometimes in the mud—on his Kawasaki KLR-650 motorcycle.

His plans include beginning his journey riding the Trans America Trail in May.

He enjoys sports fishing, kayaking, hiking and, once, he and his wife, Patti, “hammered out” a two-seater RV-6A airplane.

“I got my pilot’s license when I was 28,” said Strike, who was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived until age 13 with his parents, Thomas and Jacquelyn Strike, who then moved the family to Morristown, Tennessee. Strike has two sisters, Linda and Melany.

At age 33, his love of flying was interrupted when, because of a heart issue, he received a pacemaker and could no longer pilot.

“I put all those aviation dreams on hold until we established ourselves in East Tennessee while I became more confident and comfortable in my ability to take care of the family,” Strike said. “I still have the pacemaker and it causes me no problems.”

Strike discovered paragliding about 12 years ago. He said he was one of only three or four people in the Knoxville area at the time enjoying the sport.

“It’s really begun to balloon with the advent of social media, videos and X games,” he said. “There are now about 15 of us in the area who fly periodically and are having a great time. It’s wonderful, just like a bird,” he said, referring to sitting in a harness suspended below a fabric wing.

There is ample air-space for paragliding around his property

Strike, Patti and Cori share their farm with two dogs, 20 goats, 20 chickens and two cats.

“Patti takes care of all of that,” he said. “She also has beehives and produces honey.”

Strike’s father was a general-practice physician from 1958 to 1976.

The younger Strike’s call to the medical arena came after a college counselor recognized his exceptional abilities in math and chemistry and suggested he attend medical school.

“I didn’t necessarily want to be a doctor, being called out at night with that rigid schedule,” he said.

“I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer or go into education. I didn’t want to sit at a desk.”

Over the past 29 years, Strike has enjoyed private practice in several locations, including South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.

In 2017, after 15 years in the Oak Ridge area, he suffered burnout from what he said was too much for too long. After almost 400 days in a row without a real break, he retired—somewhat—for about a year.

“I was seeing sometimes 100 patients a day and didn’t have the time to even speak with them about their treatment,” he recalled. “It was about 10 seconds and on to the next one. I wanted more.”

In 2018, Strike came out of retirement to accept an offer to practice part-time at ARCC.

“Here at the center I can take time, get to know my patients and talk to them as long as needed,” he said.

Strike admits to being a risk-taker. In August, 2019, he and three friends climbed Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highest peak and the second highest peak in the lower 48 states, with an elevation of 14,433 feet. “That was very cool,” he said.

Oak Ridge resident Greg Livengood said he has known Strike about 20 years. They met playing basketball and quickly became friends.

“We have shared some outdoor adventures together,” said Livengood. “We do things like cycling, hiking and fishing fairly frequently. Off and on for the past 15 years or so, we have gone up to Wisconsin in October with a group of guys to spend a week grouse hunting. Yes, I was one of the four who were with Ken on the trip to Colorado last August. Mt. Elbert is definitely a mountain, but it’s really more of a hike than a climb. The single best part of the trip was that all of us made it to the summit,” added Livengood, who is in his 30th year of employment at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge.

Strike is ready to hit the Trans America Trail later this month. The original route starts in East Tennessee and makes its way through Mississippi, Arkansas and the Ozarks, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Idaho, and finishes on the Oregon coast.

“The western part will probably have to wait until next year,” he said.

“I’m still planning on riding from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to East Tennessee the last two weeks of May. I’m assuming that at that time the Outer Banks will be opened back up and I do plan to camp and distance myself even on those trips.

“When I passed the threshold of turning 50, my outlook on life changed quite a bit,” he said. “Throughout my late 20s through my 40s, I was a workaholic, working 12-hour-days, and six or seven days a week trying to make sure everything was in line and perfectly set up. A couple of things happened to change my perspective.”

With age, Strike explained, should come financial independence and emotional maturity. Those things helped him to realize, “The sand in the hour glass was mostly sitting at the bottom already and I wanted to go out and experience things while I am still young, active and healthy enough to enjoy them —thus the paragliding and riding my motorcycle.”

Strike said this is a wonderful time in his life and he wants to focus on what is absolutely important—or not. He wants more time in the streams, fishing and crabbing. He wants to go flounder-gigging down the coast of South Carolina with the “wind blowing the last few remaining hairs” off his head. He wants more time with friends and family, especially more time with his daughter.

“I want to be a more-integral part of Cori’s life,” he said.

“I want to watch her grow up and have the opportunity to really participate in the last few parenting events that I have responsibility for before she is out on her own and I am a figure in her rearview mirror.”

Strike said he wants to always see humor in everything because, in the grand scheme of things, we will be checking out pretty quickly.

“If you can’t laugh at the absurdities of life,” he said, “I can’t imagine it would be worth it.”