OMH Physician Champion: Dr. Jennifer Neilsen, MD

March, 2013

By Jennifer Mackenzie: MFA

The Onslow Memorial Hospital Chair of OB/GYN is a rotating position with a two-year tenure. The Chair presides over monthly departmental meetings, oversees credentialing, and facilitates timely solutions for all issues of patient care and overall quality improvement.

Dr. Jennifer Neilsen is a fellow of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and is certified in robotic surgery on the da Vinci Surgical System. She practices at Women’s Healthcare Associates of Jacksonville. 

From Air Force to Onslow

Dr. Jennifer Neilsen is no stranger to the pressures facing military families. Having met her husband of 16 years at a “joint military function” (Lorenzo Neilsen is retired Army), Dr. Neilsen traveled from one location to the next during the early years of her marriage. With her medical education funded through the United States Air Force, Neilsen has spent the majority of her career taking care of military moms and their babies. The perspective has proved invaluable in caring for the Onslow population, Neilsen said.

“When I had our second child, my husband couldn’t be there for the birth – he didn’t see the baby until she was six weeks old. I understand what military families go through.”

“But now,” she added, “we can often Skype deliveries to husbands who are deployed. We try to optimize the situation as best we can for everyone.”

“One of the things I tell moms who don’t have family locally is to stay connected with their community in some way, shape or form so they don’t feel so isolated,” she added. “It’s healthier for you, and your baby, when you feel supported.”

Partnering with PQCNC for healthier “Tarheel” babies

Supporting others in a patient- and family-centered environment is a benchmark of quality care at OMH. Additionally, for the OB/GYN team, helping to ensure the health of every baby born in North Carolina is the prime focus of the hospital’s partnership with the Perinatal Quality Collaborative of North Carolina (PQCNC), Neilsen explained. 

In its mission to improve the health of infants, and of women of childbearing age, PQCNC has been instrumental in statewide efforts to promote at least 39 weeks of gestation for babies (unless health issues with the mother or baby would make induction of labor the sound medical choice).

“Sometimes families want to [induce labor in order to] control the timing of the birth,” explained Neilsen, “but this is one particular event that if we can let nature take its course, we tend to get much healthier babies, and moms with fewer medical consequences.” 

The March of Dimes Foundation advocates staying pregnant for at least 39 weeks in order to allow a baby the time s/he needs to fully develop. Specifically, a baby’s brain, lungs, and liver are still developing at 39 weeks. In addition, a full-term baby will be less likely to have vision and hearing problems after birth, will be more likely to reach a healthy weight, and will have an easier time sucking and swallowing.

“We’re actually doing quite well at OMH in terms of seeing babies reach at least 39 weeks, as compared to other hospitals in the collaborative,” Neilsen reported. “We’ve pushed our elective inductions here to a full 40 weeks. If we can decrease our primary c-section rate and not do inductions unless they are really medically indicated, that would be better for baby and mom.”

In addition, the hospital strongly advises women to breast-feed their babies “because it’s truly the healthiest way to feed a baby, as well as healthiest for the mom,” stressed Neilsen. “As far as breast-feeding, we definitely have opportunities for improvement within our population.”

Improving health by reducing stress (may include a diet of “brain candy”) 

Dr. Neilsen has a soft-spoken, gentle manner. She comes across as someone who genuinely wants to understand people from all walks of life, to approach all situations with compassion and the simple notion that our time on this Earth is brief, and we ought to do all we can to make it meaningful.

“Sometimes [practicing medicine] is a question of creating enough space to listen,” Neilsen offered. 

“If we could help people improve mental health and reduce stress, it would go such a long way in improving our physical health. In terms of addictive behaviors, worries, anxieties, depression, and just general wellness – if we could help people in these areas, so much of the physical [illnesses] would be taken care of,” she said.

In her personal time, Neilsen reduces stress with a favorite pastime: reading. “I love reading – it’s my brain candy!” she enthused. 

Although “brain candy” brings to mind the kind of paperback that might be stuffed into a bag on vacation, Neilsen’s selections could hardly be considered light reading. On the contrary, they clearly indicate a willingness to face any number of difficult subjects head on. 

Two of her recent favorites were Left Neglected and Love Anthony, stories that deal with the topics of brain damage and autism. Both books are by Lisa Genova, an author who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University. Other favorites Neilsen cited were Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a heartbreaking and inspiring work of creative nonfiction set in India about families striving toward a better life; January First, a father’s powerful chronicle of his child’s descent into schizophrenia; and the internationally acclaimed Please Look After Mom, by Korean writer Kyung-sook Shin.

Doctor-to-patient, mother-to-daughter words of wisdom 

When asked for the best advice she could impart to her patients, and to the community at large, Neilsen responded, “Be kinder to yourself.”

“Of course,” she added, “see your opportunities for improvement, but be kinder to yourself, surround yourself with people who are also like this, and make time to relax.”

Her hope for her three daughters (Annessa, age 14; Saisha, age 11; and Kiara, age 9) is likewise one of love and acceptance. “I want them to know that they’re loved; I want them to share their gifts with the world, and to just ... be happy,” Neilsen said.

For herself, Neilsen’s goals are simple – and enduring:

“I hope that when there’s somebody who has a need, I can be there for them. To encourage, help, educate. I want to be helpful to those I’ve come into contact with.”