GALENA, Kan. — Like many boys, Dr. Andrew John Nelson III dreamed of wearing a police shield clipped to his breast when he grew up. As young as he was at the time, he possessed a strong urge to help others in need.
But he never entered the academy to become a police officer, a profession his father, grandfather and brother had all embraced. He chose to enter the medical profession instead.
“I think the central focus is trying to help other people,” said Nelson, Mercy Hospital Joplin’s newest orthopedic surgeon, who was born and raised in California. “It may sound corny saying it like that, but that’s really what (being a doctor) is about; it’s focusing on other people and being in service to others.”
It was Nelson’s sister, an obstetrician-gynecologist, who initially pointed him toward medicine.
“I wouldn’t say she conned me into going to college,” Nelson said with a light chuckle, “but she said to give it a shot, to see what (I) think about it.”
So he attended the Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, and “loved it — and I stayed.”
But then he hit a snag: “I didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards,” he said. “I thought about medicine, but I wasn’t sure — and that’s not something you want to do if you’re not (100%) sure.”
He worked for a year at a hematology lab, running tests on blood, serum, urine and other body fluids, but “I felt like I had reached my intellectual limit at that job, and nowhere to go or anything new to learn. I was just stagnant after a year, which is obviously not what you want with your career.”
He eventually went back to graduate school, took a course in anatomy and fell in love with the science behind it. The more he delved into it, the more he discovered how amazing the human body is.
“Learning about the biomechanics, learning about the systems — it was just fascinating,” he said.
He eventually received his master’s degree in anatomy and even taught anatomy courses at Creighton. It was a natural segue into the field of orthopedics. Better yet, he felt at home with the discipline.
“It held that ‘wow’ factor for me,” he said. “It felt natural, like it was my calling.”
Nelson’s longtime association with carpentry is a key reason why he embraced orthopedics so easily. His grandfather had been a skilled cabinetmaker, and his father had owned a carpentry business. Growing up, he learned the skills of the trade, and while studying at Creighton, he worked as a handyman for a real estate company, taking on plumbing and electrical jobs to help pay the bills and various medical expenses.
Handyman and orthopedic surgeon, in the simplest of ways, require similar skills, he said. He still uses his hands to manipulate similar instruments and tools — the drill, the mallet, the chisel — to correct things that are imperfect or broken. Only instead of using wood, he works with human bone.
“It’s still very similar principles and the very same tactile feel,” he said. “Those skills are very translatable.”
Before opening his own office last month at Mercy Clinic Orthopedics in Galena, Kansas, Nelson conducted a five-year residency at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and a four-year fellowship at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio.
In Galena, he’ll be healing trauma and fractures to the upper and lower extremities, as well as common adult reconstructive surgeries to the hips and knees, he said.
The Joplin metro area has that “small-town feel that I like; the people are nice … and it has old values and good morals,” he said. “I just appreciate that about the community. I’ve never lived in Missouri — I went from California to Omaha to Detroit to Cleveland, so I’ve been making my way to the northeast, but it’s nice to get back down to the heart of the Midwest — it feels pretty good.
“And that’s kind of what drew me to Mercy. It being a Catholic organization — I appreciate that about them because that gives them a little bit of an edge in terms of their patient care … and they are very patient-centered.”
One of the first things he noticed about Southwest Missouri?
“You guys have amazing fishing here,” he said. “I did some fishing at Lake Taneycomo and Shoal Creek, did some bass fishing, some trout fishing. It’s fantastic.”
Overall, “I just want to make sure that my patients keep coming and they get the quality care that they want, and I think (Mercy) is the place to do it,” he said.