Jill Jennings has a goal — to bring the message of healthy eating and lifestyle choices to patients and the community. It’s a challenge that, as director of clinical programs for UChicago Medicine AdventHealth, she is happy to accept, and one for which she is uniquely prepared.
After working for more than 15 years as an emergency department nurse, Jennings became very ill. She visited a variety of doctors without finding relief, and then a friend suggested she see a naturopathic doctor. That decision changed her life.
“I’d seen many doctors, had every test and had no answers,” she said. “Visiting the naturopathic doctor completely opened my eyes to the world of natural medicine and lifestyle medicine, and it got me well. I thought: ‘This is the kind of medicine I want to do for the rest of my life.’ And maybe I had to go through what I went through for God to get me where He wanted me to be.”
So, at age 40, with four children at home, she went back to school and earned her doctorate degree in naturopathic medicine. She opened a private practice, but when COVID-19 hit, she was forced to close her practice and return to nursing at AdventHealth. She began talking to her co-workers about her experiences, and when the Great Lakes Region executives at AdventHealth learned about her interest in lifestyle and nutrition, they started having great conversations.
She discovered her passion was a good fit with the Seventh-day Adventist commitment to healthy living and to treating the whole person. She was happy to find such a compatible partner for her interests, and she was excited to learn about the Adventist faith.
“They taught me so much about the Seventh-day Adventist faith and how lifestyle is so central to their beliefs,” she said. “I didn’t have to convince them that lifestyle medicine was a good idea — that’s who they are.”
Together they continued to discuss the need for more efforts around teaching people how to stay healthy and prevent illness. “We really do great sick care, but what do we do about prevention?” Jennings said.
Then at the end of 2020, Jennings was diagnosed with breast cancer. “It rocked my world,” she reflected.
As she underwent treatment, she committed even further to integrative medicine and lifestyle changes. She adopted a whole-food plant-based diet, which she believes was critical to supporting her through the rigorous cancer treatments and returning her to health.
Her experience with using nutrition and lifestyle as part of her cancer battle in turn fueled her passion for her work as well. She began to look for ways to spread that message both within and outside of the hospital.
Jennings began collaborating with others in the AdventHealth system, starting discussions on how to improve the food given to patients in the hospital and work toward emphasizing more whole-food plant-based options. At the same time, she began to offer lifestyle and nutrition classes to the general public.
These classes include a nutrition education segment and a cooking demonstration during which participants learn how to cook healthy food and taste-test the recipes. “I really want to hold their hand and walk with them,” Jennings said. So far, the classes have focused on nutrition and weight loss, heart health, cancer prevention, diabetes, brain health, and women’s health, among other topics.
She has also expanded beyond the hospital walls. She offers classes in local elementary schools, senior centers, and park districts, and she recently held a talk and demonstration at the food pantry pickup site at UChicago Medicine AdventHealth Hinsdale.
The Mission Integration team, led by Mark Bondarenko, executive director of Mission Integration for UChicago Medicine AdventHealth, also launched a new program called Breaking Bread. The team visits local churches in the community and provides a plant-based lunch after the church service. Hospital team members join in fellowship with the church members, and Jennings is available to answer any questions about nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.
“This is the core of our message — treating the whole person. This is serving people and teaching prevention: We want you to be healthy, and we want to teach you how to do that,” she said. “It is really being the hands and feet of Jesus and serving people not just when they’re sick. Certainly, we want to help them recover when they’re sick. But this is all about treating the whole person all the time.”