Dr. Melissa Byrne Nelson has been on the other side of the stethoscope.
At age 4, she had open heart surgery. She remembers vividly the kind doctor who sat at her hospital bedside and explained the operation in words a child could understand.
That interaction is one reason Nelson is so passionate about caring for children and for advocating for a Richmond-area hospital exclusively for kids.
As a spokeswoman and vice chairwoman of PACKids - Pediatricians Associated to Care for Kids - Nelson has lobbied parents, politicians, business leaders, philanthropists, hospital executives and others.
“In the adult health care world, three competing health care systems makes sense, and it’s good for the community. But in pediatrics it doesn’t,” Nelson said.
“Because we have limited resources and not enough kids to provide three complete systems of care, what we end up with are children who have access to parts of the team. We have excellent doctors and nurses - they are just working on different teams.”
The past year has been a pivotal time for PACKids. Just months after Bon Secours Virginia Health System, Virginia Commonwealth University and VCU Health started discussing possible collaboration, they unexpectedly ended those talks.
Victory had seemed within reach, particularly with a major philanthropic gift on the table. Nelson has not wavered from the PACKids vision.
"Most Richmond-area pediatricians quickly acknowledge the need for a children’s hospital, but Dr. Nelson actively seeks solutions every day, every chance she gets," said Anne Louise Maliff, mother of a child who has special medical needs.
"She masterfully inspires community involvement and has yet to be deterred by the hospital systems' announcement to reject the independent, collaborative model."
Dr. Keith Derco, PACKids board chairman, said Nelson has been an invaluable member since the organization's inception nearly five years ago.
"It has been an honor to walk beside her and many of our colleagues in raising the consciousness of our community as to how our children and their families are served in Richmond," Derco said.
Nelson was born in a small town in New Jersey, the fourth of five children. Her younger brother, Dr. Michael Byrne, also practices in the Richmond area.
In 1974, doctors told her parents she needed open heart surgery. At the hospital, there were other kids like her. She got to know them.
“As my surgery date approached, I remember seeing my new friends going in for surgery and coming out crying. ... Then one day my surgeon came to meet me, a tall man in a white coat. He pulled up a chair and sat at my bedside,” she recalled.
He began to engage her, she said. He listened to her heart and then put the stethoscope to her ears and let her listen. He described the problem, a congenital valve disease, as a sort of buzzing.
"He said, 'Do you hear that buzzing? It’s a bumble bee. You must have swallowed a bumble bee,' " Nelson recalled. " 'Tomorrow I am going to take that bumble bee out so he doesn’t sting you anymore.' "
Said Nelson: "I remember feeling great relief. That simple conversation meant so much to me.”
Nelson, recognized as one of the YWCA of Richmond's 2015 Outstanding Women Award honorees, dedicated her award to Dr. William (Bill) Gay, who is retired and living in St. Louis.
"If her experience regarding the heart surgery provided some inspiration for her career choice, I am very proud to have played a small part in that," Gay wrote in an email. "However, it is her hard work and dedication that have made her the outstanding physician/citizen that she is today."
Another early experience that drives her sense of service was helping out as a teenager at the assisted living facility her parents owned. Nelson said she cleaned bathrooms and helped the facility’s residents with bathing.
“I know now that it was a really important part of my life, how important it is to give people dignity,” she said.
Nelson went to Virginia Tech for undergraduate work. On the first day of medical school classes at VCU (then called the Medical College of Virginia), she met Kinloch Nelson, the man who would become her husband.
“I called my parents and told them, ‘I started medical school and I saw the man I’m going to marry.' "
They went through medical school together and to New York City to do medical residency training - he in surgery and urology, she in pediatrics. Though she considers herself a primary care pediatrician, Nelson did fellowship training in neurodevelopmental and behavioral pediatrics and has a particular interest in autism.
“I love Richmond," she said. "Its history is so visible and real, and yet there is so much passion and desire for forward movement. Richmond is full of potential and incredible people who are working hard to see it reach that potential."
IN HER WORDS
"Groundhog Day." It’s a hilarious movie, and I’m a huge Bill Murray fan. I’ve seen that movie so many times, it’s like Groundhog Day for me. My take away from it: (1) Embrace what is most important. (2) If you try hard enough, there is usually a path forward.
Becoming a pediatrician. It is an incredible privilege to watch a child grow, and I am grateful to play a part in keeping them healthy and well. I love children. They are honest, hopeful and full of potential.
With each chapter of my life, I have come across incredible people whom I admire and have learned a great deal from. Honestly, I believe you can learn something from most people you meet.
Something you’d like to do
I have to bring up the children’s hospital project here. I hope that someday we can find a way to work together as a community on this issue. We have people all over town who are dedicated to caring for our children and have made it their priority. Nurses, doctors, technicians, therapists. They work in hospitals built for adult patients with boards that consider pediatrics 10 percent of the time. I would like to be a part of a collaborative effort to bring those people together. We have allowed administrators of health care systems to start an arms race that actively works to prevent this effort. Our community should stand up and insist that we find a solution rather than continue the status quo.
MELISSA BYRNE NELSON
Born/hometown: Aug. 3, 1970; Basking Ridge, N.J.
College: Virginia Tech (bachelor's in finance), Virginia Commonwealth University (medical degree), Weill Cornell Medical School (internship and residency in pediatrics), Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Rose F. Kennedy Center (fellowship training in developmental and behavioral pediatrics)
Family: husband Kinloch; children Kinloch, Garnett and Sarah