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  • Writer's pictureCatherine White

ExPats : Liz White

“I have some wonderful memories of growing up in Elmira, that really have become more dear to me as I get older,” says Liz White, who’s currently living in San Antonio, TX.

“I appreciate so much of growing up where we did. Especially now that I have left Elmira and can look back on some great memories.”

Liz grew up on Elmira’s northwest side, the middle child of three, in the 1980s and 90s. She attended Booth Elementary School, Ernie Davis Middle School and Elmira Free Academy; and like most area youth, called the streets between Hoffman and Clinton her playground. She also spent quite a bit of time in Sayre, PA, visiting with her grandmother, Helen White, who’d left the family farm in western Pennsylvania to become a nurse.

Despite aspects of her childhood resembling the typical small town experience, Liz often felt disconnected.

“Not everything was wonderful, or a "Leave it to Beaver" episode,” she explains. “Growing up biracial and poor made me feel very uncomfortable and not sure where I fit in. Being biracial and being raised by a single white mother, but not looking white, was very uncomfortable for me.”

A mostly absent father added to Liz’s difficulty with making connections and feeling comfortable in her own skin.

“Our father was not involved in our life very often, just peripherally, at times. So, not having many positive black adult influences involved in my life did not help me feel pride in my skin color. I just felt out of place.”

Even though she struggled, Liz has fond memories of growing up in the area.

“There are parts of growing up in Elmira that I will look back at fondly. My friendships, always,” she says.

“I grew up living in ‘The Plaza’. I remember days of just roaming around the neighborhood with friends. Going to the woods with a whole group of kids and just exploring and playing in the creek,” she says. “Evening games of kickball and softball, playing hopscotch in the fire lane, and rollerskating all over.”

Fortunate enough to live in a corner apartment in Hoffman Plaza that included a yard that extended to the parking lot, Liz recalled the expansive yard all the kids played and sunbathed in, as well as her mother’s summer garden - picking tomatoes, drinking from the hose, and then hunting for blackberries with the neighborhood kids for dessert.

“Though, I had very good friendships growing up - Best friends; there was always a part of me that felt like I didn't belong,” she remembers. “Part of me felt like I couldn't be me. I often felt like the token black person in a group. Or that I was under a microscope and needed to be on my best behavior.”

“It wasn't until I was an adult - like, my late 30's - that I became more comfortable in my skin and proud to be me.”

She considers her teenage years relatively normal - ridiculous angst (she dressed all in black in middle school) and changed her name from ‘Beth’ to ‘Liz’. She also babysat for neighbors, and when she was old enough she became a candy striper at Arnot Ogden Hospital.

“I should have known then that I would spend the rest of my life in health care,” she says.

“I really felt proud of my volunteering in the hospital. I felt as though I was making a difference. Between taking photos of newborns - Man, have newborn photos changed over the last 25 years! - To filling empty ice pitchers, caring for children in pediatrics whose parents needed to be away from their children for a short time. I just felt like the hospital was where I belonged.”

At 18, Liz began working for Chemung ARC (now known as The Arc of Chemung-Schuyler) in a residential home for children with severe developmental and physical delays. She really enjoyed the kids and the work.

A couple of years later she had a son, Nathan, and started seriously considering the best way to support her family.

She went to work at the Elmira Psychiatric Center as a Therapy Aide, mostly working with geriatric patients. It was there that Liz met a fellow nurse, Joyce, who encouraged her to return to school to become an RN. So, that's what she did.

Knowing it would be hard with a young son, Nathan was only 2, she’d still need to work while going to school. With help from her mom and sister, who could care for the toddler while she worked and took classes, Liz earned an Associates of Science Degree in Nursing, and began her career.

“I thought I would go into Pediatric Nursing,” she recalls. “I knew that I had interest in Maternal Health but I was sure it would be Pediatrics for me. Then, I saw my first delivery during nursing school, and I was done! I wanted to help women bring new life into the world. I wanted to help educate women on their bodies and choices, during labor and after.”

In 2003, Liz got her first job at Rochester General Hospital where she learned a lot, even though she was only there for nine months.

“I moved back to Elmira and started working Labor and Delivery at Arnot Ogden Memorial Center, where I continued to learn my trade and made friends with my co-workers, and learned how important good teamwork is.”

Liz continued to gain experience and knowledge in maternal health and labor and delivery while providing a stable life for her son.

In 2010, Liz began contemplating moving away from the Southern Tier.

“There were multiple reasons for leaving Elmira but the biggest reason was for my son. I felt Elmira was in decline. There was an increase in crime in the area. I saw so many businesses closing over the years and, with the two prisons in the area, I began to think his only options as he became older was to be a prison guard or a prisoner,” she says. “A bit dramatic, yes. But when it comes to my son, I wanted to give him a life where he could see he had choices.”

“I still primarily saw myself as the biracial girl growing up in public housing and not feeling as though I fit in anywhere,” she explains. “It was also the perfect time to move. Nathan was graduating from elementary school, some of his friends' families were also moving out of the area and, even more important, my sister was willing to go on this big adventure with us. Without her I wouldn't have been brave enough to actually leave E-town.”

Liz was also tired of braving the northern winters.

“I love the first picturesque snow, but then I had to shovel. We had to dress in so many layers, and winter was so long, and gray and wet. I needed more sunshine!”

After visiting Austin, TX and interviewing at several hospitals, Liz made the biggest decision in her life and accepted a job offer in the Lone Star State.

“I started working at St. David's Medical Center in July of 2011,” she says. “It was amazing! My coworkers were amazing, the teamwork was great! My manager and director were a dream. I worked on a unit where, as long as you were doing your job, advocating for your patient and making sure you were giving safe care management on the unit, they stood behind you. They encouraged all staff to strive to be the best.”

Liz continued to learn and grow as a labor and delivery nurse.

“I got to join the Maternal Transport team where we went to lower level hospitals or hospitals that didn't have an Obstetrics Department and picked up patients that were “high risk” due to maternal health or fetal health,” she explains. “I got to learn how to become part of a flight team with this job. Depending on distance and patient health status, often our team would fly using a helicopter to get to our destination quickly. In this position, I learned how to sharpen my assessment skills even more. I was the person making the decision on whether the patient was stable to transfer. I had to make decisions on care to give in a helicopter. I was the one in charge and it was an amazing experience.”

Liz then became a Charge Nurse for the unit, working the weekend night shift. Being Charge Nurse at St. David’s was a big position. Liz would be doing employee evaluations, learning staff members’ strong points, while also finding out what they needed to work on so she could provide experiences for them to become the best RNs they could be.

“I needed to ensure that the nurses were working well together and that the whole team - nurses, doctors, scrub techs and unit clerks - were working well together. Everyone doing their best to be the best and provide the highest level of care to our patients.”

“We had a family at St. David’s,” Liz says. “We all cared for each other and wanted what was best for everyone. I grew so much working at this job. I found confidence in myself, figuring out who I was and doing what made me happy. And I was making a difference.”

“Nurses for the most part don't do the job for the money,” she explained. “You work way too hard for the amount you get paid. You become a nurse to make a difference. To feel as though we are helping our patients and their families, sometimes through the best moments of their lives and sometimes through the worst times of their lives.”

While Liz loved her job and team members, the past few years haven’t been easy.

“The pandemic added a new stressor on the lives of essential workers, including nurses,” she says. “The beginning of the pandemic was terrifying … Not knowing what we were dealing with, how to best help our patients and keep ourselves and our family members safe.”

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the protocols were confusing and kept changing.

“We were being told it was okay to reuse protective gear even though it had never been allowed before, and we felt as if we were stepping into our deaths to help others that may die anyways.”

“As we learned more about Covid and how to help the severe patients, we still had so many bad experiences,” Liz recalls. “Labor and Delivery staff know that not every experience will be babies and rainbows. We have all had to help families come to term with the loss of their child - sometimes even the loss of a mother. But we have so many good experiences … Watching our amazing NICU team save a baby's life, being able to stop a woman from bleeding to death, or being able to intervene and stop a mom from seizing or avoiding a stroke because we are able to recognize the signs and intervene quickly to save her life.”

Coronavirus added stressors to an already demanding job.

“With Covid, we were having more patients end up in ICU. We still take care of those patients. The ICU nurses were in charge of running medicines and machines that we were unfamiliar with, but we still had another patient inside of mom. ICU staff doesn't know how to assess that being, but Labor and Delivery nurses learn from the beginning that it's not just mom we are caring for but also this tiny baby that we can't see, can't talk to us, or tell us how it is feeling. We only know how to read our fetal heart rate strip and determine how the baby is doing.”

“Also, how mom feels or what is happening to her, can affect how the baby is doing. Often, we have to decide, is it better for mom to stay pregnant? Delivery may be too stressful to mom and baby,” Liz said, explaining some of the issues that the average person may not consider. “Or, maybe the pregnancy is too stressful for mom, and preventing her body from fighting Covid.”

There was also a heavy mental and emotional toll that nurses and doctors faced every day during the pandemic.

“While in ICU caring for our patients, we had to watch ICU nurses care for their patients and watch them deal with the death of those patients at a higher rate,” she says.

“Our patients were staying in the ICU for much longer than normal and we had a lot more admissions to ICU due to Covid. All units needed more staff but the extra staff was not there. So everyone is working extra, stressed because of being short-staffed, needing to work harder and having to experience death in a way we haven't experienced before. All the while still trying to be the best for our family and keep them safe from this virus. Everyone is stressed in a way we had never been stressed before, with no relief from that stress for over a year-and-a-half.”

Concern over the emotional and physical toll the virus has had on the medical community throughout this health crisis, as well as the devastating effects the politicization of this pandemic has had on the profession, helped Liz make the decision that it was time for a change.

“I didn't plan to leave my work family but I was getting very unhappy - not with my actual job - I still had joy in what I was doing. But the stress of working overtime and still not feeling like I was making a difference was exhausting. I felt under appreciated by hospital management and in need of a change.”

“I always wanted to start travel nursing, but no time seemed just right and I hated the thought of leaving my team, my family. But then I got an offer I couldn't refuse,” Liz says. “I realized I needed to do something for me, so I took a travel position in San Antonio that started in September. The work is the same. I still work hard. I still give my all to my job, but I feel happier in being paid more of what I'm worth.”

Liz is not exactly sure what the future holds.

“I wish Texas and New York were a lot closer so I could visit with friends!” she says. “I haven't been back to Elmira in a few years, and that is very hard.”

“I want to continue to do travel nursing. There are some places in this country that I want to spend some time in, so I hope to be able to do so for a few years. Then I'm not sure,” Liz says.

“Time will tell.”



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