The Block Island Times

New faces at BIHS: Summer medical resident Neil Jackson

By Gloria S. Redlich | Jul 29, 2013
Photo by: Gloria S. Redlich Neil Jackson.

During the summer, if you need to be seen at the Block Island Medical Center, you are very likely to meet a new attending resident. Each year at this time, BIHS brings in third- and fourth-year students on rotation from Brown University Medical School to assist staff at the island facility with the demands of a very busy season. At this time, there are three such residents — Neil Jackson, Chris Klaus and Jen Nickiel — here for a month. Recently, The Block Island Times stopped by to meet them and chat. The first of a series introduces Neil Jackson to the island community:

When he arrived for his month-long medical rotation at Block Island Health Services, fourth year Brown University medical student Neil Jackson brought with him his bonsai plants, which presently line the walk to the doctor’s house where he and two other Brown medical students share quarters.

Concurrent with his medical studies, growing and tending gardens is a large part of who Neil Jackson is, as is evident in his work for the past three years in the Brown Agriculture, Nutrition and Community Health program (BrANCH). Founded in 2010 by medical students who believe that the source of some of the most serious health issues within the United States derive from nutrition, BrANCH goes directly out into the Providence community, establishing gardens and teaching people about healthy food selections and cooking, as well as nutrition.

Jackson says that he and his group have received a $3,000 grant to put in a garden in front of Blackstone Academy, a charter school in Pawtucket, “with kids in the class helping in every step of the garden.”

The route to medicine for Jackson has been a circuitous one. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Jackson attended Honors College at Pennsylvania State University where he studied and earned a bachelor’s degree in history and philosophy.

Immediately after graduation, he lived with his uncle in Colorado and worked in stonemasonry. Later, under a Fulbright Scholarship, Jackson spent nine months teaching English in a boarding school in Malaysia.

After that, his deep interest in growing things and the relationship of people to the land informed Jackson’s decision to move with six friends/colleagues to a dairy farm in Nicaragua. There they started a communal agro-ecology research center, teaching sustainable farming. Jackson says for six months they helped the locals make a transition from cattle-based agriculture to planting and harvesting agriculture, such as coffee and fruit trees.

Beginning on an “empty piece of land,” Jackson and his friends built the infrastructure, as well as planting vegetables and initiating reforestation. “We lived in the open air mostly and under a thatched roof. We learned Spanish; there was no electricity and we did manual labor all day, but it was the most beautiful place you can imagine,” he said. Jackson explains he received a deferred admission to the medical school at Brown during this time.

Concentration in global health

But once enrolled at Brown, Jackson’s experience in Nicaragua became a springboard to a concentration in global health, which he describes is like taking a minor while majoring in medicine. The Brown Global Health Initiative is a program that the university created as a way to expand the education of medical students about lesser developed countries with scarce resources and which are often medically underserved.

The concentration runs throughout the four years of a student’s medical training, with the expectation that a “research product” will have been achieved during the fourth year. Having been back to Nicaragua several times, Jackson will return again later this year to continue work begun there and to complete his research project.

Jackson identifies family medicine as the area he wants to specialize in and notes that each step of his way has seemed to confirm that his choice is the right one for him. He likes the idea of the general practitioner, the country doctor, and is not drawn to the idea of specialists.

“It’s wonderful to have [specialists], but in general, I’m more interested in preventive medicine and have a special interest in community health.” However, doctors are there, he feels, to have general knowledge of serious issues. “You have to have an understanding of and make use of” the vast fund of knowledge within the medical establishment. He also thinks it important to be aware of economic and societal issues as well — that is, the context of the world in which a patient lives.

Toward an inclusive approach

Jackson sees most communities as fractured entities, which he believes can be changed through a more inclusive approach to medicine — through which the health of the entire community may be addressed. He sees the doctor’s role as pivotal in the ways in which change can happen. He’s concerned about agriculture and nutrition, as well as psychological and spiritual health.

“I think that’s the best avenue [being in family medicine]: for example, while talking to patients about diabetes, I can also speak about changing lifestyles.” But, he adds, there is “definitely a place for all kinds of approaches to medicine.”

“If you’re going to have a strong, scientific background in terms of diagnoses and treatment, there is room for acupuncture and homeopathic — for some alternative approaches.” However, he adds, “Most of the treatment within traditional medicine continues because it works.”

Jackson does not come from a background of medicine; rather says he is “more at home in the arts and music community.” In addition to his medical studies, he is also an accomplished musician — playing the saxophone. He notes that he and a classmate who plays cello have a band and have recorded an album in what he describes as “experimental and improvisational classical jazz.” A lover of both genres, Jackson is fascinated with classical influences on jazz. “We’ve been doing it throughout my years at Brown,” he said.

A vague idea

As to the decision to become a physician, he said, “So you begin with a vague idea you want to be a doctor, to help people, but all the while you’re doing the long process of applying to medical school you have very little idea of what it means to be a doctor.”

He adds, “The short of it for me is: I’ve always wanted to help people and be a contributing part of the community, and I think the best way is to be a doctor and have the opportunity to teach.” He is interested in teaching about basic health.

The opportunity of spending a rotation on the island fulfills an elective allowing him to practice rural medicine. After graduation next summer, he hopes to find a residency “someplace in the Northeast or possibly go back to the Pittsburgh area.”

Jackson is clearly enjoying his time on island, its beauty, the slow pace and the opportunity to meet many interesting people. He finds the physicians’ house — where he and his colleagues are staying — comfortable and charming, particularly the time spent on the front porch relaxing under the scrollwork and watching over his bonsai plants.

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