BY DONNA CRARY
Whether she’s working as a nephrologist or as associate chief of staff for Cleveland Clinic Martin Health, Dr. Jean Vickers focuses on making patient care her No. 1 priority. Being a physician is a calling, she says, that she discovered later in life. It is a career where she wants to make an impact by improving the quality of patients’ lives.
“The difference is made with one physician and one patient,” she says. “You can make a lot of policy changes, big global decisions, but the difference is made in the exam room. There is a trust that develops when you have a relationship that I’m honored to be a part of. That’s why, regardless of what I do from an administrative perspective, at the end of the day, I have to go back into the exam room. My leading administrator refers to that as my happy place.”
Born in Jackson Center, Ohio, Vickers grew up on a farm in a small, one-traffic-light town. The youngest of four, she remembers her family going on house calls with her father, Glen Aukerman, who was a primary care doctor.
“It was the early days of pagers and cell phones, and so one of us had to stay in the house at all times to answer the phone for patients,” she recalls. “Patients would even show up at our door. I did not want to become a physician, period. I wasn’t interested in it — it was something that had impacted our family life.”
While attending the Columbus School of Girls, she discovered she had a knack for math and science. Being dead set against pursuing medicine, her science teachers advised her to give engineering a try.
“I had no idea what engineering entailed, until I got all the way through,” she says as she reflects on those days. “I loved the problem-solving part of it. To me, it’s a great base for medical training because it teaches you how to think about a plan and doesn’t focus so much on the details, but the process. I think it served me really well.”
Vickers earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis and then went on to graduate school at Ohio State University to study biomedical engineering.
Realizing she needed additional training in the biomedical sciences, she took a break from her studies and worked as a quality engineer for Guidant Corp., a maker of cardiac stents. As part of her job, she conducted clinical case reviews that looked closely for device failures. Although Vickers was helping patients as a quality engineer, she realized that something was missing in her work. It was during this time that she learned about a friend losing his father to cardiac arrest. As he shared his father’s story, her second career began to come into view.
“He was telling me about his father’s symptoms, and in my head, I already knew that he had heart failure,” she says. “I realized that had I been the one in that exam room and heard those symptoms, I may have gotten him to cardiology and given him the intervention that he needed, and it may not have been a fatal event.”
It was this defining moment that made Vickers realize she needed to apply to medical school and follow her destined path.
“I had done this work as a quality engineer because I thought it was an easier life than medicine, and I felt was making a difference,” she points out. “I realized that I was close, but not close enough to be able to take care of patients and make a difference on an individual level.”
Following in the footsteps of her father, sister, and brother, Vickers enrolled in medical school. She received her medical degree, graduating with honors from West Virginia University. She then specialized in nephrology, completing her residency and fellowship at the University of South Carolina.
“The nerd-engineer-geek in me loves the science of nephrology — loves the numbers — it’s a very objective field,” she explains. “There are a lot of medical fields where it has a lot to do with how people feel. I was really drawn to it because I could check, identify and diagnose with definitive testing. With a kidney piece, I can do blood work — I can see what is happening. I was just fascinated by it and thought it was so interesting.”
As the associate chief of staff, Vickers has overseen doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and clinicians for the past two years.
“We are very fortunate to have Dr. Vickers leading the Cleveland Clinic Martin Health physicians,” hospital president Robert Lord says. “She is a talented physician who provides great care to her patients. She is a compassionate and thoughtful leader, and her engineering background has helped us tremendously in improving our efficiency and creating better access for our patients.”
Vickers enjoys working as the hospital’s leading physician and as a nephrologist. There are certain aspects of both jobs that she finds interesting and challenging.
“I still get to solve complex problems; I get to synthesize a lot of data and figure out a pattern within the data; I get to coach people through challenges; and sometimes educate,” she says. “I may educate an administrator on the practice of medicine and how something works or why it’s important. Or, I’m educating a physician on an administrative or business side of something that they haven’t been exposed to and understanding why that’s impacting their clinical world. I love those things and I get to do them in both of my roles.”
Away from the hospital, she unwinds at home doing creative projects.
“I like to make things,” she says. “So, I knit, sew, and I have done some weaving — played around with making pottery. I’ve kind of dabbled in a bunch of random things. I need that me-time to get recharged.”
Vickers credits her mother, Jean, and sister, Melissa, with teaching her how to sew and knit. At 82, her mother still sews and recently made and donated about 100 masks to the local hospital.
Whether she is providing clinical guidance in her administrative position or meeting the needs of a patient in an exam room, Vickers thrives in her role as a doctor — especially when she knows that she is making a difference.
“I really love being a physician,” she says. “It’s hard, but it’s worth it. My dad had said that he knew that I would always find my way into medicine. It was the only thing that would provide me satisfaction — intellectually and personally — and he was right. It was the right thing for me to do.”
Occupation: Nephrologist and associate chief of staff for Cleveland Clinic Martin Health
Lives in: Martin County
Family: Husband, Dr. Rob Vickers
Education: Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Washington University; graduate studies in biomedical engineering at Ohio State University; medical degree with honors from West Virginia University; residency and fellowship in nephrology at the University of South Carolina
Hobbies: “I like to make things — period. So, I knit, sew, have done some weaving, played around with making pottery, and I’ve kind of dabbled in a bunch of random things.”
What inspires me: “My patients and my peers because I see people dealing with chronic illness, and the courage and the grace that they handle that with, everyday, is inspiring. And, the same for my peers.”
What most people don’t know about me: “Most days I am wearing something that I made myself.”