Kelly Nierstedt began working at age 15, cooking, cleaning and eventually staffing the register at a Burger King in her hometown. The job brought with it some contempt from her high school peers. But as she watched her coworkers and her mother, who had served as a manager at the fast food chain for several years, she quickly learned there was no shame in a job well done. When she embarked on her health care career, it was that same humility, gratitude and work ethic that would guide her through physically, mentally and emotionally demanding roles. She worked for 11 years as a registered nurse, then went on to several administrative positions with Virtua Health, including vice president of women’s and children’s services, later becoming president of OSF Healthcare. With the advantage of an administrative bird’s-eye view of health care, and the passion of one who has spent decades working to improve the patient experience for women and children, she serves today as senior vice president of Orlando Health and president of the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies.
What did you want to be growing up?
When I was about 8 years old, I was hospitalized for several days for what turned out to be a minor digestive issue. You would think I’d have terrible memories of that hospitalization, but I don’t. The only thing I’ve ever remembered was how cared for I felt by the nurses. At the time, they were the strongest, smartest and most caring people who had ever touched my life. Unfortunately, my family did not have the financial means to send me to college when I graduated high school, so starting in an entry-level position, I worked my way up the ranks in the financial sector. I was content for a few years, but my heart kept calling me back to nursing. I finally quit my job on Wall Street and went to college to become a nurse.
What brought you to women’s and children’s health care?
As much as I knew I wanted to be a nurse, it wasn’t until I was in nursing school that I knew my passion was women’s and children’s health care. I completed my obstetrics training in Newark, New Jersey, which is one of the most underserved communities in the country. It broke my heart to see what I now know are disparities in healthcare for the poor. I watched my first delivery by the side of a teenage girl who was drug addicted and alone. I was so excited to be part of what should have been the happiest days in this young woman’s life, but I was also left wondering whether it would be, given all of the challenges she had to face caring for herself and her child. After that, I never considered doing anything other than serving the needs of women and children.
What inspired you to take on a new role in Orlando?
With 350 beds dedicated exclusively to the needs of women and babies, Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies is known for having one of the largest and most comprehensive programs in the nation. In addition to other prestigious distinctions, Winnie Palmer is a Magnet Hospital, the gold standard for nursing’s contribution to quality patient care, safety, research and service excellence.
In your time with Virtua Health, you created Virtua for Women, a program designed to meet women’s health needs. What inspired you to establish this, and what does comprehensive health care for women look like?
Honestly, as a woman over 40 at the time, I was extremely frustrated by the lack of health and wellness services designed for women. Even when services were available, access was limited and care was fragmented at best. Multiple focus groups with women of all ages confirmed I was not alone. We started by establishing a “women caring for women” model of primary care. The practice cared exclusively for females 13 and older. With hourlong appointments for new patients and 30-minute follow-ups, the providers were able to assess all aspects of a woman’s health and wellness, including diet, exercise, and sexual and mental health concerns. The next step was making sure all of the providers and services were easily accessible when needed, which often meant having them immediately available in the practice or the same location.
What aspects of women’s and children’s health care do you believe are in need of more careful attention?
The United States is ranked 46th when it comes to maternal mortality. Far too many women are dying during and after childbirth. The issue is complicated, with a number of factors contributing to the spike in maternal deaths. Some experts point to the fact that more women wait until they are older to have babies, and they often begin their pregnancies with conditions like high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. Many others believe a contributing factor is high C-section rates for first-time moms, which most times lead to repeat C-sections for subsequent pregnancies and an increased risk of surgical complications such as bleeding. Another staggering statistic points to the fact that women of color are three to four times more likely, on average, to die in childbirth in our country. We can and must do better for these women. To start, everyone needs to do a better job listening to patients. Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital has invested in Triton, cutting-edge technology that uses an iPad to measure a woman’s blood loss at delivery. Knowing exactly how much blood has been lost allows providers to intervene quickly and often before symptoms are evident. As great as technology is, no matter what the findings, if a woman tells you something is wrong, she’s almost always right. Also, there needs to be more follow-up after delivery. Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies provides several weeks of home nursing for some of the highest-risk patients. Women in this program are provided with technology to monitor and transmit vital information to their provider. We are able to intervene earlier and can often avoid having that patient come back to the hospital.
Can you tell us a bit more about Orlando Health’s growth, and why it is so necessary now?
With Central Florida’s projected population growth in excess of 8% in the next few years, Orlando Health is establishing sites of care in locations that are close to home for the communities we serve. Over the last nine months, four new freestanding emergency departments have opened, with two more scheduled to open in the next 12 months. New medical pavilions are planned in Lake Mary and Lake Nona, and the Horizon West Hospital is under construction and scheduled to open in early 2021.
Women, especially single mothers, continue to be at a significantly higher risk of poverty than other demographics. What can we do to ensure that those who are more financially vulnerable still have access to quality health care?
Orlando Health partners with the exceptional community-based providers in our area’s health departments and federally qualified health centers to provide care to women whose pregnancy develops high-risk conditions. Serving as one of the state’s 11 regional perinatal intensive care centers, Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital delivers the highest level of clinical care to all moms and babies who may experience health challenges that place them at a social and financial disadvantage. And we work tirelessly to connect all of our new moms to the community resources that are available to help support successful parenting and child development. The services offered through Orlando Health’s Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families are also an important component of the care that Orlando Health provides to vulnerable populations across our area.
Outside of work, what are your passions, interests and hobbies? How do these contribute to your own personal sense of holistic health?
Like most women, I have a hectic schedule. I work very long hours, so finding time with my family is always my top priority. My husband and I like to take long weekends and visit new places throughout the United States. Our three children are young adults finding their own way in life, but if we’re lucky, one or all of them travel with us. I also enjoy interior decorating on a really tight budget. My family makes fun of my bargain hunting and the fact that things in my house often still have tags on them — you never know when you might need to return something. And I enjoy my alone time. For me, being alone with my thoughts gives me the time I need to process the multiple things I’m juggling. If I really commit, I can settle myself long enough to practice mindfulness. Like most women I know, “me time” is often last on a very long list of things I need to accomplish in a day. Admittedly, I should probably take my own advice to slow down and be more present in the moment.
What is the best piece of advice you have received?
Pour yourself into everything you do. Then, success or failure, there will be no regrets because you have done your best.