By Maria Muro
Amelia Jernigan, M.D., noticed from her charts that one of her ovarian cancer patients was admitted to the hospital on her birthday. She asked food services to send up a cake, and the spontaneous birthday surprise was a joyous success.
"She still sends me Christmas cards,” Dr. Jernigan says. "It really meant a lot to her. Sometimes it feels like we work really, really hard doing all these extreme things to save our patients. This was something so little and a reminder to be nice to people and to do for them.”
That humble gesture aside, Dr. Jernigan has big plans for her patients in her new position as a Gynecologic Oncologist at University Medical Center New Orleans’ Cancer Center. Coming off a series of prestigious educational stints with an OB/GYN residency at Johns Hopkins University and a fellowship in Gynecologic Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic, she is eager to move forward, putting her hard-earned skills to work taking care of women with cancer in our region.
But that doesn’t mean she won’t look back when she needs to.
"The Cleveland Clinic was a wonderful place to train,” Dr. Jernigan says. "We had a lot of independence, took care of a lot of patients and performed a lot of procedures. I have wonderful mentors, and I still talk to them a lot. They’re good to have in your back pocket as those physicians are very in-the-know about new trials, research and procedures.”
Keeping in touch will help her local patients get the best access to clinical cancer trials and up-to-the-minute chemotherapy standards. She is also excited to perform the innovative procedures she’s learned in robotic surgery, sentinel lymph node biopsies and specialized tumor removal called debulking.
More than that, she will be sharing her knowledge with medical students and residents as Assistant Professor of Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology for LSU Health New Orleans.
"It was important for me in finding a job that it involved teaching,” she says. "There’s something about being around learners that keeps it from getting boring. They ask questions you might not think to ask yourself.”
In fact, it was a medical student who wasn’t afraid to ask a question that ended up leading Dr. Jernigan to some of the most curious research she’s undertaken in her career. One of her patients was experiencing severe post-surgical nausea and a student wondered if they couldn’t offer her something besides expensive medication with unpleasant side effects. Dr. Jernigan researched options and found a reference to chewing gum after surgery. It seemed to work well for her patient and was certainly affordable. She ran a randomized clinical trial with favorable results and now recommends chewing gum to all her surgical patients.
For the vast majority of her life, Dr. Jernigan loved science and knew she wanted to be a doctor. Then in college, she dual majored in neuroscience and women’s studies at Tulane University. "I should have known then that I would have ended up in a women’s specialty,” she says. "And in medical school, I just really enjoyed taking care of women. They are great patients, and, as caretakers of the whole family, you’re taking care of the whole family when you care for a woman.”
Though she is from and her family still lives in Annapolis, Maryland, Dr. Jernigan loved her Tulane experience so much that when she finished her training, she got in touch with every medical connection possible looking for a position back in New Orleans. "LSU happened to be hiring, which is just extraordinarily fortunate for me,” she says. She is thrilled to be working with a staff of "enthusiastic, bright minds working to do innovative things.”
One of her biggest career goals is to become a mentor to her students the way hers have been an inspiration to her. "My favorite physicians stay excited about what they do every day,” Dr. Jernigan says. "They are curious minded … always asking questions … trying to understand and come up with new ways of doing things. And they aren’t afraid to shake things up a little bit. To work this hard on a job, I want it to always be exciting and interesting.”
Even if that means the grueling challenge of seven or eight hour surgeries? "I like the big surgeries,” she says. "At the end to the day, if our patients have a better chance at survival or a cure, then I’m satisfied.”
Medical School: Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA
Residency: Obstetrics and Gynecology, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
Fellowship: Gynecologic Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic, Ohio
LSU Healthcare Network Clinic
3601 Houma Blvd., Ste. 302
Metairie, LA 70006