Pamela Elzy remembers the day her nursing career began as the day she told her mother she’d secured a scholarship to the University of Louisville … to be a history teacher.
“My mother said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous; I’ve signed you up for nursing school,’ ” Elzy said. “I have to say, it’s one of those things where mom was correct.”
A survivor of the Great Depression, her mother was the oldest “of many siblings,” and the only one to have worked prior to marrying, Elzy said. She knew that nurses made money and was worried that her daughter wouldn’t be able to support a family on a teacher’s salary. As it turned out, nursing “is something I was drawn to,” Elzy said, “and I really have not looked back.”
“I still read a lot of history,” she said. “I just don’t teach it.”
Elzy got her letter of acceptance from the Saint Joseph’s School of Nursing in Louisville the same day the Courier-Journal reported that the school was closing. The nearby Kentucky Baptist School of Nursing offered to take on any students displaced by the shutdown, and, much to her Catholic father’s regret, that’s where Elzy went.
“It was a very difficult discussion, but mom was insistent on this course of action,” she recalled. “I got a stunning nursing education.”
The three-and-a-half-year diploma program at Kentucky Baptist offered a three-month clinical surgery rotation among its assignments, and Elzy fell in love with the operating room. At the end of school, seniors were allowed to choose their assignments for the last three months of school, and she headed back to the OR. By graduation, she’d put six months of surgery experience on her resume.
Elzy’s education had been funded by a scholarship from the Jewish Hospital Foundation, which included a two-year contract at the Jewish Hospital of Louisville upon graduation. When she appeared before the scholarship group with the backing of a family friend, the director of nursing told Elzy her grades were good enough to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the field.
“I can remember in my 17-year-old mind, saying, ‘I don’t want to teach,’ ” Elzy said. “I’ve been eating those words a thousand times.”
Elzy was given an OR assignment at Jewish Hospital, which she recalls as “a wonderful climate for developing as a person and as a professional.” She thrived for years in the role, but her next nursing director hammered home the point made by his predecessor, telling her, “If anyone’s interested in management in my hospital, you’ve got to have a bachelor’s degree.”
So, Elzy spent the next six years earning her BSN part-time while also working part-time.
As promised, that led to an OR supervisory role in which Elzy spent another decade before earning her master’s degree in hospital leadership at Webster University in St. Louis. Four years later, she missed the OR so much that she took another position as the director for surgery and recovery at a Level II trauma center. By the time Elzy had reduced her role into an evenings-and-weekends detail as a charge nurse in order to spend more time raising her daughter, her responsibilities had expanded to include not only surgery and recovery but also the same-day surgery unit, nursing education, labor and delivery, and a satellite labor and delivery clinic.
Along the way, Elzy discovered she had a knack for formulating staff education and gathering hospital policies and procedures. She was invited to take over as an interim perioperative nursing educator at the University of Louisville Hospital – an experience she described as akin to building an airplane in mid-flight. She eventually inherited the position full-time, and was promoted to the director of the clinical education department.
Two years later, Elzy earned the opportunity to develop and implement a clinical informatics program. Along the way, she completed an online MSN and a doctorate in nursing, which jibed with the institutional changes that followed after the hospital was merged with Kentucky One as a division of Catholic Health Initiatives. Elzy became the system-wide director of clinical education.
It’s been a long climb to the position she’s earned through years of schooling and dedication to the advancement of her peers as well as herself, and to Elzy, that experience has yielded a degree of clarity about the field. She still credits her OR background as a new graduate with helping her understand nursing at its most basic level.
“Complexity, advocacy, teamwork – all of those things you have to be successful at to work as a nurse in the operating room – this is what we’re asking of our new grads now, and many of them are having so much trouble doing that,” Elzy said. “I learned early on it was not about what I did, it was about how I interacted with all of the people that were in this operating room to care for this patient. To me, that was a lifelong learning opportunity. I am really, really sorry that our nursing students don’t get more opportunities to embrace their role before they have to decide what to do with their lives.”
“I miss it a lot, but I’m 63 and I don’t think I could work 12 hours in a lead outfit anymore,” she said. “This opportunity we have when we’re young to experience different things; the OR is a place to ground yourself in these vital pieces of nursing understanding.”