Medical resident Jen Nykiel: merging of science and service to people
This article is the third in a series on Brown University medical students and residents doing a month-long rotation at Block Island Health Services (BIHS) to assist with the increased seasonal demands for medical services.
Some islanders may recall having been treated last month by fourth-year medical student Jen Nykiel, for whom the rotation at BIHS came and went too quickly. In the midst of slipping into the routine at the local medical center, she says, “I want to stay here forever.”
Nykiel, who grew up an only child in a suburb of Chicago, entered Brown’s Program in Liberal Medical Education right out of high school and has been at the college for seven years. During her first four years, she explains, she was able to take whatever classes she wished. Though she majored in biology, she also took courses in art, literature and history. “I had a very fine college experience,” she adds, in which she earned her bachelor of science degree in human biology.
Her road to medicine, she says, derived from several early influences: as a youngster often going to work with her mother, who is a nurse; an aunt battling breast cancer and a troubling memory of going through a medical emergency herself when she was young that was not a satisfying experience. “It was very scary and the doctors could have made me feel more comfortable; they could have talked with me to try to put me at ease,” she recalls.
It is a memory that informs her own practice of medicine about which she has certain very specific ideas. “Doctors are very privileged to see people at their most vulnerable,” she says. “So I think they have an obligation to treat [patients] with kindness and to connect with them on a human level, so that the patients feel safe.”
Her father was a civil engineer, and the family was steeped in the sciences. It is very natural for Nykiel to be, as she says, “very math- and science-oriented.” With both parents working in community service, she also characterizes herself as “a people person,” noting medicine seems to bring together the two areas.
Always inquisitive, Nykiel says during her first week on the island she took out a map and “systematically” read through it, highlighting places to go: Cooneymus Beach, fishing by the Coast Guard Station, climbing down the Mohegan Bluffs and visiting the Poor People’s Pub. She adds she has come to love all corners of the island she’s discovered.
Describing an average day at BIHS, she says it starts at 9 a.m. when she begins seeing patients. Nykiel speaks glowingly of “Linda [Closter], the nurse, who is amazing. She holds everything together!”
“We go in and introduce ourselves to patients, ask questions and then do a physical exam,” she says. Then she will speak with either Dr. Janice Miller or Nurse Practitioner Liz Dyer, with whom Nykiel confers, suggesting what she believes would be an appropriate treatment.
“If there is a disagreement, then that’s when I’m having an educable moment,” she says. At that time, both health professionals go in to see the patient together and discuss what needs to be done. “Then,” she adds, “we do it, and I write it up.”
Nykiel has developed many interests, among them music, leading her to play several instruments, including piano and trumpet and to sing as well. For a time, she taught beginner’s trumpet and trombone; however, she says more recently she hasn’t kept up with her music. She is also a photographer and says she has loved going all around the island taking photos.
As to her future path, she’s considering two possible directions: one is continued training in emergency medicine with a doctor in a small community, where the emphasis would be on developing her skills. (Her goal at the end of this residency would be to become an attending physician right away.)
Her second option is to do a critical care fellowship with doctors in an Intensive Care Unit at a prominent teaching hospital, instructing fellows and residents and following a more academic track. Selecting this fellowship would mean that she would go on to do more training.
In thinking about working with patients, she stresses the importance of trying to understand the context of an individual’s medical needs.
*In a previous version of this story that appeared online and in print, Jen Nykiel's last name was misspelled as Nikiel.