When Neil Nickelsen, DO (COM ’68) began his medical career in the early 1970s, he was only the second pediatrician to practice in Gwinnett County, Georgia. At that time, there were approximately 20,000 children enrolled in school. Nearly 40 years later, on the occasion of his retirement from his beloved practice, Bi-County Gwinnett Pediatrics, the number of students in the Peach State’s second-most populous county had ballooned to some 120,000.
The number of pediatricians grew dramatically, too, although Neil admits he doesn’t have an exact number.
“One thing was for certain—it was nice to have some company,” laughs Neil, who, on a more serious note, says embarking as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine in the South in 1971 wasn’t exactly an easy path. “I fought many battles to have the degree that I worked very hard for accepted. I didn’t realize, when starting out, that there was such a bias against osteopathy. I told myself all those years ago that my determination, dedication and commitment, would make people understand I was a good doctor.”
But, in 2005, while wrapping up nearly four decades of impacting thousands of children’s lives, Neil—board-certified in pediatrics, a fellow in the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Osteopathic Pediatricians and former chairman of the Osteopathic Institute of the South, among many other achievements—was able to reflect on some historical firsts that bookmarked his acclaimed pediatric career. He was the first DO on staff at Egleston Hospital for Children, the pediatric teaching affiliate of Emory University School of Medicine (now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta). He was the first DO certified in the state of Georgia as a pediatrician. Appointed to countless committees, Neil’s knowledge, enthusiasm, winning personality and natural philanthropic spirit were assets that would become his signature calling card in the field of pediatrics and help open many doors.
Neil, a native of Blue Point, Long Island, was a psychology major with a minor in zoology. Following graduation in 1963 from Houghton College in Houghton, New York, he taught junior high school science for a year, married his wife, Vivian, and changed the course of his life with admittance to Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences (KCU).
“In December of 1963 I visited my family dentist who told me about osteopathic medicine and how a DO had saved his wife’s life,” Neil recalls. “Becoming a medical student wasn’t necessarily what I had intended to do, and Vivian was a bit shocked when I told her about my desired job change. While I didn’t have a distinct understanding of osteopathy at the time, I was curious and fascinated by the concept of treating someone’s body, mind and spirit.”
Introductions were made, and it happened that the physician had a brother in Kansas City who was a surgeon in an osteopathic hospital. Soon Neil found himself completing an application to KCU and flying to Kansas City over Easter break in 1964, hearty recommendation in hand, for an interview at the school.
“Everyone was welcoming and passionate about osteopathic medicine,” Neil says. “They wanted to accept me on the spot, but I was four hours short in the sciences. I made arrangements to enroll in a summer course back in New York.”
Neil then passed the prerequisite medical genetics course, with apologies to his new bride who forfeited their honeymoon, as he had to be present for the entire time to perform lab experiments in order complete requirements to enter medical school. The newly minted medical student and Vivian, a social worker, moved to Kansas City in August 1964; Neil was prepared for one of the most influential experiences of his life—and wasn’t disappointed.
“I was excited and proud to be part of my class,” Neil says, “and soon learned that the faculty treated students with respect. They took their individual responsibilities seriously to make each of us excellent physicians.”
Gravitating toward the specialty of pediatrics, Neil was guided by “one of my greatest mentors, John Howard, DO (COM ’40), a visually impaired physician who taught me how to approach a child. He instilled in me many of the values that became the substance of my medical practice—hard work, honesty, compassion.”
Neil also credits Howard’s wife, Joanne Skillman-Howard, DO (COM ’62), and pediatrics department chair, Myron Jones, DO (COM ’29), with providing an ambitious outline for the medical student’s future.
“They were remarkable, sincere people and professionals who motivated and inspired me,” Neil says. “I was eager to put what they taught me to good use.”
Mentors were a centerpiece in Neil’s life—he named his pediatric practice in Georgia in honor of two pediatric mentors who trained him during his Detroit, Michigan, residency.
“They gave me priceless guidance and support as I made my way,” Neil says.
Years later, life’s full circle brought joy to Neil, when he was able to pass along the spark of his love of osteopathic medicine to young people, acting as guide and cheerleader as they endeavored through medical school, and also give back to the community.
“Mentoring others over the span of my career, and helping those in need, are highlights for me,” says Neil, who spent 18 years as associate medical director of Camp Big Heart in Fort Valley, Georgia, wearing the same hat and draping the same stethoscope over his neck each year as he worked with mild to moderate special needs campers. “What you receive is far greater than what you give.”
During the final 10 years of his practice, Neil became a behavioral specialist, and today sits on the board of directors for Physicians Power to Protect, volunteering to help prevent child sexual abuse and exploitation.
Fondly referred to by his little patients at Bi-County Gwinnett Pediatrics as “Dr. Nick,” he has one piece of advice he still offers to young people anxious to pursue medicine.
“Above all, trust your training, because it’s your foundation,” he says. “For me, I would never have chosen any other school than KCU.”
Giving to Honor a Tradition
For Dr. Neil Nickelsen, KCU wasn’t merely a place where he received an education.
“I was part of an institution that gave me a deep respect and pride for osteopathic medicine,” he says. “I am forever grateful for the opportunity I was given to uphold our extraordinary profession. I am proud of the tremendous growth and development KCU has been fortunate to experience. For me, giving to KCU is a way to honor the very people who helped me and my classmates become respected physicians.”
For further information, contact KCU Office of Institutional Advancement at 816-654-7280 or firstname.lastname@example.org.