Dr Hilary Brown Nixon - A labour of love

Dr Hilary Brown Nixon - A labour of love


Monday, February 24, 2020

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HILARY Brown Nixon was in her final year of engineering school when she decided that she wanted to be a surgeon. While designing a computerised system for a hospital as part of her engineering thesis project, she spent a lot of time talking with doctors and learning about the emergency room. When she completed her engineering degree, she put it aside and headed to medical school. That change of course would put her on the path to becoming the only board certified vascular surgeon in Jamaica, a university lecturer, and founding partner of the Vein Centers of Jamaica — which specialises in minimally invasive vascular procedures.

“I saw the need for specialised vascular surgeons in Jamaica,” she related to All Woman. She realised this after she returned as a general surgeon working at The University Hospital of the West Indies (UHWI) for five years.

“Yes, there were several trained general surgeons, but I saw that there was a need to do specialised care in vascular surgery, and so I went back to the States and did an additional two years' training in vascular surgery,” she explained.

But even after her fellowship at Yale University School of Medicine and becoming board certified in a field that is in high demand globally, she didn't even think twice before returning home to practise. Why?

“Because I find that it's actually fun to take care of your own people,” she smiled. “People who will say they have 'belly pain' and you understand what they mean, or when they say they have 'sore foot'. It's distinctly different from practising in America, and I was happy to come home again.”

Having left Jamaica immediately after she graduated from Immaculate Conception High School to continue her studies abroad, Brown Nixon spent more than 15 years of her life living and studying in the States. This was too long for the Kingstonian who always felt strongly connected to her home and family.

“So when I came back in 2012 it was a natural fit for me to go back to The UHWI, because I loved serving my people and I liked it there. But now that I had this specialised skill, I saw that there was a niche in the market that needed to be filled, so I started my own practice along with Dr Bart Muhs, who actually trained me in vascular surgery,” she remembered.

As a vascular surgeon, Dr Brown Nixon works primarily with the blood vessels outside of the heart and the diseases of those blood vessels. Such surgeries can be very tedious, but she knew this from the get-go and was not daunted.

“While in training I was the main assistant surgeon in a liver transplant,” she recalled. “The lead surgeon was very pregnant, about eight months, and she knew that during the procedure she wouldn't be able to take a break or go to the bathroom. She actually put a tube in her bladder before the start of the 12 to 14 hours surgery so she wouldn't need to take a break.”

Although that surgery went well, it was not the outcome that caused the memory to be etched in Dr Brown Nixon's mind, but the symbolism of sacrifices it meant she would have to make as a woman in the profession.

She knew this before she got married and had her son, Adlai, who is now 10 years old, and she is very grateful to be in the supportive family that she is.

“I grew up in a supportive household, the younger of two daughters born to an engineer and a librarian,” she said proudly. “And my family in general is very supportive. They keep me going.”

She admitted that lecturing at The UWI, being on call as the only vascular specialist at The UHWI, and running a private practice can take a toll on the quality time she spends with her family, but she tries to make the best of the time that she has.

“Maybe my son and my husband would say that they would like me to be around more, but I try to be as efficient as possible,” she said, making chopping gestures on her desk as she explained how she does meal-prep in the mornings and makes time to help her son with his homework, even if it is in her office.

But Dr Brown Nixon enjoys caring for her patients just as much as she cares for her own family, and she puts a little piece of her heart into every vein that she lays hands on. One of the things that tugs at her heartstrings daily is the financial limitations of some patients who need health care services.

“It's heartbreaking sometimes to know what they need and you're not able to do it,” she said. “In the private practice you have to be creative and dynamic because sometimes patients come and you may be able to find a way to help them even though they can't afford it, but in the public sector, sometimes it's just totally heartrending…”

Now in her early 40s, Dr Brown Nixon is looking forward to mending veins for as long as hers work properly, and pass on her knowledge and expertise to more Jamaicans. She has recently launched a scholarship programme to assist medical students at the university.

“Our company's decision to have a scholarship was borne out of a need for succession planning and mentorship,” she shared. “We are trying to ensure that we mentor Jamaican medical students, provide them with a bit of financial support, and maybe they will get interested in vascular surgery or vein disease, but even if they don't, just to provide that mentorship is important.”

While she continues to lecture and plans to continue on her academic career path at the university, she hopes that more students will decide to specialise in the area.

“There is definitely a need for more vascular surgeons in the country and the region. People call me from not just across Jamaica, but other Caribbean territories. I am overworked!” she laughed. “I also want to expand Vein Centers beyond Kingston and Montego Bay. There have been requests to have other Vein Centers in other parts of the island, and who knows, perhaps we could even expand outside of the island.”

On a personal level, her greatest ambition is to be the best mother she can.

“Everything that I do, professionally or otherwise, is so that I can leave him as a mark in the world and feel as if I didn't do too bad,” she shared. “The most important thing for me to achieve is for him to grow up to be a happy and well-adjusted, functional human being.”

And though she is a pioneer in her specialty in Jamaica, she takes more pride in being a compassionate doctor.

“Sometimes the outcomes are not so good but the patients really appreciate what you did for them and you still really impacted their life because of your approach to dealing with them,” she said fondly. “Being the first doctor to repair a traumatic thoracic aneurysm or do a vein ablation in Jamaica is not as important to me as how each of my patients remember me. I think if I can be remembered as a good doctor, a smart doctor and an empathetic doctor, that will be enough.”

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