MGH program director, RN retires after 40 years

MARQUETTE – Laurie Neldberg-Weesen has worked at Marquette General Hospital for most of her life.

The daughter of longtime CEO Robert Neldberg, she got her start doing odd jobs around the hospital when she was only 14 years old, and her love for the work, for helping people, flourished into a 40-year career as a registered nurse and veritable Jill-of-all-trades.

Neldberg-Weesen recently retired, leaving behind a list of accomplishments that will remain a testament to her many endeavors.

As program director for MGH’s Brain and Spine Center – which she said “entails neurosurgery, neurology, physical medicine and rehab and a variety of (other) programs” – for the past 12 years, Neldberg-Weesen worked with Marquette General neurologists to develop the Primary Stroke Center, the only one of its kind in the Upper Peninsula.

“When you are associated with the neurosciences and working with neurologists and neurosurgeons, you tend to look at what disease processes affect the most amount of people,” she said, amidst sporadic congratulations and well wishes from her coworkers during her retirement party Thursday. “And so I was working with neurologists who felt that stroke was a big problem in the Upper Peninsula – somewhat due to the fact that the age of our population is greater – and so gradually we started working on systems and processes that increased the speed with which we took care of the patients.”

Neldberg-Weesen said that one of the things the stroke center aims to do is educate the public to recognize the signs and symptoms of stroke – because with stroke in particular, expedient care is essential – but that also they worked to better coordinate care among members of hospital staff from many different departments.

“Once in the (emergency room), then a whole chain of events has to happen – between CT scan, lab work and evaluation by a neurologist – to determine if this is the right kind of stroke to give the blood-clot-busting drug called (tissue plasminogen activator),” she explained. “And so if any of those processes take too long, you might be outside the window of time when it’s appropriate to give that drug, and so those are the things you work on diligently, because it’s a multi-departmental process.”

Recently the Joint Commission, an independent not-for-profit organization that accredits and certifies hospitals and hospital programs throughout the country, certified Marquette General’s stroke center for the third time, which she said “shows a high level of quality for your program.”

In addition to her work in the Brain and Spine Center, Neldberg-Weesen has worked as a staff, orthopedic and surgical nurse and has performed clerical work and phlebotomy (drawing blood). In the late 1980s she was instrumental in creating a partnership between MGH and the Marquette County Health Department to develop the area’s first clinic for people who had contracted, or were worried they’d contracted, the human immunodeficiency virus.

“The health department was trying to figure out what to do about the HIV issue and I was involved in working in an infectious disease clinic with Dr. (Jeffrey) Gephart,” she explained.

Neldberg-Weesen said that while HIV and AIDS weren’t really a big problem in the area, “a fair amount of people were being tested, concerned about having been exposed.”

“And this was in the early days, before there was any effective treatments and so people were just scared out of their minds,” she said. “It was a really eye-opening experience. I also learned a lot about the disease, and I was asked to be speaker at many, many different service clubs and schools and all sorts of venues that placed me in the public’s eye. I was not always sure that I wanted to be associated with HIV,” she laughed. “But, you know, I felt really good about the mission of trying to teach people.”

Neldberg-Weesen said her father was “probably the single biggest influence” in helping her to create what she called a “really rich, diverse career.”

He “certainly helped mentor me and coach me in what I was capable of doing,” she said. “I didn’t even always realize what it was I could do.”

Neldberg-Weesen referred to her retirement as the end of an era.

“When I say that I grew up at Marquette General, I literally mean that,” she said. “And so when you’ve been around a group of people with like-minded missions for that long, it’s a huge – it’s like cutting off your arm. It’s like, how will I define myself in the future? Because it’s all I’ve ever known.”

Even still, Neldberg-Weesen’s retirement will not be an idle one. Outside of Marquette General, as president of the Noquemanon Trail Network, she hopes to devote more time to the organization and its development of the trail network.

She also has several other passions.

“One of them is my horses and my animals. My family, of course, is a huge part of my world – and I’ll have more time for them,” she said.

And she plans to continue to give back to the community, saying she’d like to volunteer with Marquette’s Willow Farm Therapeutic Riding program, which offers therapeutic horseback riding for children and young adults with special needs.

“I like horses and I like kids and people – so I think I can make a difference there. I think there’s probably things I haven’t even thought about that I could or would or want to do. I’ve been warned, though, that I may get more offers for work than I really want,” she laughed. “So I have to be careful.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.