Night after night, 12-year-old Jessica Thornton watched the nurses in action. She spent a lot of time at her friend’s side as he recovered from surgery after surgery to address genetic complications.

Those long hospital stays also offered Thornton a glimpse into the personal relationships that can develop and endure long after the medical procedures have happened. What struck her most was the trust and respect that formed between patients and their care teams. Thornton wanted to replicate that one day.

“I was intrigued at a young age about nursing and the compassion that you’re able to see in settings like that, where families are so close to the providers,” she said.

Thornton has since channeled that ethic into her role as the nursing leader of the new maternity program at Novant Health Kernersville Medical Center. Set to launch in March, the birth center will offer services to mothers who previously had to drive to either Winston-Salem or Greensboro to deliver their babies.

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Despite the national nursing shortage, Thornton has hired an experienced staff of 35 with a combined experience of more than 250 years. Many of them are local labor-and-delivery nurses. Crucial to her management style is ensuring that the nurses are supported emotionally and professionally while working stressful hours, she said.

“I think when you’re able to keep your team members and your patients at the center of every decision that you make, it will all come full circle,” Thornton said. “A lot of times as organizations get bigger, it’s easy to forget about its people. But for me, leadership is all about serving your team.” (In fact, maintaining a strong, supportive culture for nursing is a high priority across Novant Health.)

New facility, seasoned team

Thornton’s love of obstetrics started while a nursing student at Rockingham Community College. She began her career at Cone Health Women’s & Children’s Center at Moses Cone Hospital, in 2011. After 12 years, she was ready for a change, and a chance to emerge as a leader in women’s health. She got that opportunity when she joined Novant Health in April 2023.

“My husband convinced me to apply because he was constantly hearing my ideas of how to better support nurses and patients,” Thornton said.

But first, she needed a team. Thornton spent months recruiting and organizing RNs, neonatal nurse practitioners, surgical technicians and respiratory therapists — many of whom live nearby.

“I think being able to provide that level of care right here in their hometown has been really meaningful to them,” Thornton said. “I’ve told every team member that we have the opportunity to make this program what we want and know it can be. But we also have the opportunity to build a great place for people to work.”

It was while studying nursing at Winston-Salem State University that Thornton fell in love with assisting families through their most intimate moments.

Thornton and her high-school sweetheart, Scott, have three children: Jasmine, 13, who joined the family through fostering and adoption; another daughter, Emery, is 9; and their son, Lincoln, is 6.

The birthing experience

The program’s lead physician, Dr. Natalie Rochester, is an OB-GYN with over a decade of experience in obstetrics and advanced robotics surgery. During their pregnancy journey, patients will be able to discuss alternative pain management options including hydrotherapy, nitrous and epidurals.

Patients should rest easy knowing that their birthing choices, whatever they are, will be supported. In fact, labor-and-delivery nurses are required to advocate in the best medical interest not only for the patient, but also for their baby and family, Thornton said.

“It’s about making it a positive experience and supporting the mom in making the choices that she wants for her delivery, and being able to voice that when she feels like she can’t,” she said.

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