Learning from the best

Jess Derks

APP Spotlight: Jess Derks, Nurse Practitioner, Neonatology; American Family Children’s Hospital; Neonatal Intensive Care Unit

Tell us about yourself.

I’m from a small town called Hortonville, Wisconsin. I’m the oldest of three and have a brother and sister. I’m the only one who went to college. I knew college was in my future since I was very young. I attended Marian University in Fond du Lac, where I earned my bachelor’s degree. I have always loved kids and I knew wanted to work with them. My senior year in college, I trained at St. Joseph’s in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and knew, without a doubt, that is where I wanted to be. I’ve now been a nurse for 15 years.

Tell us about your family.

My husband, Bob, and I have been married for 13 years. Our three kids—Sloane, 12, Sutton, 8, and Crewe, 5—keep me busy outside of work. We now live outside of Hortonville and our extended family lives nearby.

How did you come to UW Health?

When I was in graduate school and thinking of clinical sites and possible job positions, I knew if I wanted to be the best, I had to learn from the best. I applied for a neonatal nurse practitioner position at UW Health. Even though it was six months before graduation, I wanted them to know I was interested in their program. The recruiter told me about a unique neonatal nurse practitioner internship. I completed the internship while in graduate school. The internship paid a nurse wage and that was very attractive for me and my family. Now, I work as a nurse practitioner at American Family Children’s Hospital.

What inspires you about your profession?

Early in my career, one of my teachers taught me that babies whisper to us and it is our job to listen and react accordingly. I have held onto that lesson my entire career. Bedside nursing is so vital and I’m honored to be trusted by families to care for their fragile baby. People often ask how I do it. Sometimes we do lose a patient and those are the absolute worst days. When that happens, I always take time to decompress. I also see micropreemie, a baby who is born on or before 26 weeks or weighs less than 28 ounces. Many of them are on ventilators. The day I get to watch them leave the hospital, breathing on their own and thriving, fills my heart with so much joy. Those days keep me going.

Do you have a memorable experience in your career that has stayed with you?

I recall a little boy who stole my heart a few years ago. He was born with cytomegalovirus (CMV) and it went to his brain. How that mama loved her baby boy—the way she looked at him, I’ll never forget. He was one of my first patients working at American Family Children’s Hospital, born at 32 weeks. In addition to CMV, he had cleft palate in addition to endocrine and esophageal issues. There were so many specialties involved in his care and they all worked seamlessly together. Eventually palliative care got involved and, unfortunately, he didn’t survive. The entire team did absolutely they could for him and I was incredibly honored to be a part of his team.

What have your patients taught you about yourself?

My patients are tiny but oh so mighty. They teach me resilience and patience and I carry those traits with me at home as well. Being a working mom is hard. I see moms in the NICU who can’t take their babies home because they have long stays in the hospital. Some even lose a child. It’s devastating and so I never take anything for granted. COVID-19, workplace challenges and turnover are hard to deal with. My little patients teach me to love. I am thankful to fight with them for their recovery and health. It’s the best gift.

In a few words, how would you describe your coworkers and team at UW Health?

The NICU team members are the best. They have such great minds and hearts. They foster learning and growth. Our faculty leader, Ryan McAdams, MD, is incredible. He is a busy doctor but is always attentive to our staff and takes time to get to know us and our families. He wants us to excel in our interests. I feel the advanced practice provider (APP) role is highly valued and respected here. UW Health has always been progressive and recognizes talent⸺and that is refreshing.

Outside of work, what did you accomplish this year that makes you proud?

By far, I’m most proud of my kids and family. I worked hard in graduate school and I missed out on so much with them. I’m invested in my job but also in my home and family. So, I make every effort to be present for them.