‘When you love something, it doesn’t feel like work’: Tapestry clinician Jenny Fleming-Ives discusses her career in women’s health

  • Jenny Fleming-Ives is a clinician with Tapestry Health in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The waiting room at Tapestry Health in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Published: 3/17/2020 3:01:38 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece grew out of a class at Smith College, “Writing about Women and Gender,” taught by the journalist and author Susan Faludi.

My parents were Scots — they were missionaries — and I was born in China. I was brought up mostly in Southeast Asia. As a child, I lived in Singapore and Malaya — as it was called back then, before it became Malaysia — and a lot of different places that were particularly impoverished. Beautifully cultured, but very impoverished.

I have a very clear memory of being in Calcutta, in India, when I was 16. In the city, I remember, on the street, there was a woman with five children living in what was basically a cardboard box. And I have a very vivid memory of thinking, “This isn’t right.” I felt very aware of the contrast — although I didn’t have any lavish offerings, I was an Anglophone person who was so acutely aware of her plight, of the children. I thought, you know, “I need to do something about this with my life.”

Eventually, I went to the University of Sussex, in England. While I was there, I worked in very poor areas of London; then I also worked in Glasgow, which was also very poor. In both places, I did a lot of work with families and a lot of political action work. In Glasgow, too, I got married to Peter [Ives], my husband (a retired pastor of First Churches in Northampton). We lived and worked there for some time; he ran a community center, and I was involved with that.

In ‘75, we came to the U.S. My husband is from Connecticut, and he has family here. We didn’t have any work or jobs or anything, but we came with two little kids and moved around for a bit while we looked for jobs. Then Peter became a minister in a church in Cambridge, up by Harvard Square, and we lived there for about eight years. I became part of this very small community outreach program, where I started teaching childbirth classes and attending births with people at home. And doing that, it sort of clicked for me that this was the kind of work I wanted to do, that I wanted to work with women very closely.

I knew I had to go back to school, but I missed the opportunity to get my British qualifications as a social worker changed into American certifications. I ended up going to Yale, to the school of nursing, where they had a program where you could enter without any background in nursing. It was a three-year program where you did a kind of crash course for the first year, and then for the next two you specialized. I did the women’s health nurse and midwifery program piece. And then at the end of the year, you sit for the national exam. I passed and got qualified as a nurse. That was 30 years ago.

Shortly after that, we moved here. I started working full time as a nurse at a sort of large institution, but I’m not really an institutional person, so I found that pretty challenging. I’ve tended to work in the nonprofit world, in the more marginal world anyway. And while I was working at this health facility, I started working at Tapestry as a part-time clinician. We didn’t have any regular clinicians then. We sort of just did evening hours along with our day jobs, and then we got state funding and expanded — Planned Parenthood hadn’t expanded to this part of the state yet, so we filled in that gap. Slowly, slowly we became full time.

Now, a typical day at Tapestry is seeing clients. I think I see someone new every 15 minutes. I try to make the appointments longer, and I can request that, but there has to be someone free when people come in. And people come in for all kinds of things: a pap smear, starting birth control. Yesterday, I had a client come in who had been informed by a partner that they had been diagnosed with an STI (sexually transmitted infection). We had another client who had been fearing exposure to syphilis who had come in to get blood work done. I’m there 9 to 5, so I could see around 20 people in a day.

One of our major philosophies is accessibility. And that’s not just physically accessible, in terms of how you get there and you can wheelchair in or whatever, but it means, you know, open booking. I think we have built up a reputation that we know what we’re doing. I also think we have a reputation for confidentiality. I get a lot of students, for example, who don’t want to go to one of the student health services, you know, from the area. Because they don’t want to sit there and find somebody they know on the next chair or something [laughs]. So I think people really like that confidentiality.

I think we also have done a very good job reaching out to the trans community, and people feel really comfortable, however they present, that there will be familiarity and acceptance. People are seeking that.

The hardest part of the job is giving people bad news. Telling a young 13-year-old or 14-year-old — this is happening less and less — that there is a pregnancy, that they are in denial about, don’t want, and have no support for… that’s very hard. Like I had one very recently, last year, and I’ll give you this as an example, I had a 15-year-old who had gone to a party and got pregnant. She had had sex for the first time — I mean classic — had sex for the first time, got pregnant, obviously didn’t want to continue. She didn’t have any relatives who would have been supportive. And so, first of all, she was distraught by the pregnancy, then by the fact that she had no parental support. She decided she was going to terminate; fortunately, we knew exactly how to help. It was not just the pregnancy, and the youth, but the lack of support. So that was a hard one.

I’m a believer in mind-body, the connections with the whole person. And sometimes people will come with some physical ailment, and you do all you can to help them with that, but it persists, and basically it’s because there’s a therapeutic piece that needs to be done.

What’s interesting is that our clinic now is in the building (at 76 Carlon Dr.) that’s owned by Safe Passage, the domestic violence or intimate partner violence nonprofit. They do therapeutic work with women who’ve been in abusive situations. They own our building, and we rent from them, and it’s been great because if I think, I can’t really help you, because there are other things going on, I’ll walk them over to Safe Passage and hook them up with services there. But I think that’s challenging, too, because people have to sometimes break down in your office, and you have to sit with that pain, and that can be really hard. And you can’t really do anything about it.

My life now is very full, very full [laughs]. I have six grandchildren. I have four daughters, they all have partners. So I spend a lot of time with each of them, and with the grandchildren. They’re from 4 to 14, so there’s a little person and a bigger person. I try to get to performances and race track … cross-country meets! And clarinet recitals, and things like that. Peter is retired from the First Churches but is still very involved in the community. He was one of the people who established the Sojourner Truth statue in town. So we’ve been very community involved. I’m still very involved in the Northampton Education Foundation, which supports the public schools. My kids all went to public schools. I was a citizen volunteer involved in the regeneration of Pulaski Park. You know, I have this sense of trying to build a community where I can.

When you love something, it doesn’t feel like work, but you also have to be careful with that. You have to do other things that you love, right? I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to have a sort of rich family life and this very grounded career in a way. Looking back, it does seem like there was a thread leading me to all this.

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