T Grace Emori-Elder

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

“After four years, I realized teaching nursing classes was not my gift. So I walked into the office of the Director of Nursing Service at Loma Linda University Medical Center and declared, “Okay, you lucky guys, I'm back! I want you to give me a great job.” It was kind of silly, but I felt I could get away with it because I knew her well. She told me that Dr. Harvey Elder, infectious disease specialist, and Dr. William Thompson, director of the Clinical Laboratory, were looking for a nurse for a new program they were developing called hospital infection control. She sent me to talk with them. I knew little about infection control at that stage, none of us did, the field was so new. I was hired as a nurse Epidemiologist.

“Formal infection control programs were just beginning across the country so there was a lot of breaking new ground. Urinary catheters, IV tubings, and respirators violate patient’s normal defenses, drastically increasing the risk of infection. As the number of sophisticated new procedures, immunocompromised patients and drug-resistant organisms increased, preventing infections became crucial. We identify risk factors for infection by rigorously tracking infections and passed on the information to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) national surveillance system. We used this data to create protocols for preventing infections from procedures and trained the staff in proper techniques. Under Dr. Elder’s visionary and energetic direction the program became a model for other institutions.

“What we did caught the attention of CDC. After six years at Loma Linda, I was honored to be invited to join the CDC staff in Atlanta. I honestly wondered if I was capable of such a coveted job. I thought, “People would give their right arm to be able to work at CDC!” Still, I knew Dr. Elder had trained me well and that I likely had more “in the hospital” experience than anyone else on their staff. In 1974, I joined the CDC as an Epidemic Intelligence Surveillance officer in the U.S Public Health Service. The photo shows me in uniform with Dr. C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General of the United States and Dr. James Mason, the Director of CDC in 1988.

“Working in a federal agency with national and international responsibilities can be intimidating but I found at CDC a deep sense of collegiality and support. It didn’t matter if you were a physician, a laboratorian, a nurse, or statistician, each person was respected for the skills and knowledge they brought to the program. We all worked to uphold the CDC’s stellar reputation as the leader in public health. Every document we produced was reviewed at multiple levels for accuracy and clarity because they represented official CDC positions. I spent much of my day on the phone giving hospital infection control practitioners information, guidance, support and encouragement to deal with their situation. During my 26 year career at CDC as an epidemiologist, I helped train others, conducted research, spoke at national and international conferences and developed federal guidelines on policies and procedures.

“The Lord is at your side when your purpose is to honor Him. He helps you do things you cannot do on your own. You can be a blessing in your work environment. Most people working at CDC are passionate, to the point of missionary zeal, to promote health, but don’t follow religious traditions. I was able to validate their spirituality, pointing them towards a loving God. When you care about their challenges as well as their successes, you are invited to celebrate with them or comfort them. I believe that my strong personal commitment to God and my church helped me to be available when my colleagues needed someone to lean on. I was never asked to violate my own spiritual beliefs or practices.

“I want young ladies coming up through our Adventist education to know that they can hold their own outside of the Adventist bubble. When we get out into the public sector, especially a high-level like the CDC, we wonder, “Do we really have the knowledge and experience to be able to handle it?” To which I will shout a resounding “Yes!” Our education is academically competitive with any other schooling and it is undergirded with spiritual understandings. I think you never feel totally prepared to take on a new role perceived as “big”. That uncertainty helps you notice all the new and exciting things awaiting you. God has already led you with your education, your experiences, and the supportive people in your life. Pick great educators as mentors, they develop your sense of competence. When others have confidence in you it begins to rub off! Pray about opportunities that come up and ask God for guidance and you will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

“I worked side-by-side with many young professionals training at the CDC whose expertise is now the backbone of public health and epidemiology around the world. It was truly a wonderful experience. How could I have been so privileged to have worked in this place?”

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