If you have a dream you cherish, hang onto it and pursue it against all odds. That’s the philosophy that has kept Lou Ella Taylor motivated since she toured a hospital as a first-grader in Kansas. The local newspaper covered her visit and one of the photos in the feature shows Lou Ella wearing a nurse’s hat. The only student who asked to go on rounds with a doctor that day, Lou Ella remembered wanting to wear a doctor’s diagnostic head mirror.
Today, in her mid-50s, Lou Ella is a registered nurse but is back at school, enrolled in a post-baccalaureate premedical program at Stony Brook University, fortifying her transcript and enriching her knowledge base to prepare for the rigors of medical school. When she completes the program next year, the next step is medical school. Her dream of becoming a palliative care physician is still nearly a decade away, but her history proves she is nothing if not determined.
Poverty, single parenthood and tragedy failed to put a stop to Lou Ella’s aspirations. That long-ago hospital tour was burned into her impressionable young brain. As early as age four, when anyone around her needed first aid, she reached for her toy doctor bag.
When she was five years old, she was thrilled to see a woman of color, Diahann Carroll, playing the lead role in the television show “Julia.” But her enthusiasm was tempered by a question: Why couldn’t Carroll play the doctor instead of the nurse?
The youngest of nine children and raised by a single parent on government assistance, Lou Ella refused to let circumstances dictate her destiny or diminish her self-worth. Her mother, who was deeply religious, armed Lou Ella and her siblings with life lessons that taught them how to carry themselves, how to interact with others, and how to live according to a “God’s purpose for their lives.”
As a child, Lou Ella took an academic interest in all aspects of medicine. “It’s all I wanted to do day and night — so much so that I would rather read my encyclopedia than play with the neighborhood kids most of the time,” she said.
At the age of 24, Lou Ella was chosen for a residence scholarship to University of California Berkeley for premed, majoring in psychology, but still had to cover her tuition by working as an RN. Widowed at 26, she weathered single motherhood and a host of other challenges. She went on to earn a master’s degree in nursing as a clinical nurse specialist. Lou Ella earned her PhD in physiological nursing, with research emphasis on chronic pain in adults with sickle cell disease, from the University of California San Francisco.
When her brother’s son was diagnosed with sickle cell disease and she later learned that she, her daughter and three of her siblings also carried the gene, the disorder was getting close to home.
During Lou Ella’s nursing career, she worked at a hospital with many sickle cell sufferers. Seeing how they were marginalized and underserved, Lou Ella focused on better pain treatment outcomes and quality of life for sickle cell patients in her master’s and doctoral research.
One of those research studies turned into an article published in Pain Management Nursing that examined a biopsychosocial-spiritual model for chronic pain in adults with sickle cell disease.
“It’s very rewarding to know that my contributions are helping to make a difference in the lives of patients with this and other disease processes as well,” she said.
A gift her church pianist-organist and singer-songwriter mother passed along to her — the gift of music — would also brighten patients’ lives.
Nicknamed “The Singing Nurse,” Lou Ella began to serenade nursing home patients.
“I will always fondly remember how one patient who I thought was lethargic pepped up when I started singing, ‘Love Walked in’ by George Gershwin,” she said. “I didn’t think he would ever talk but he told me that it was the song he sang to his wife when he proposed to her, and that she had recently died after 75 years together.”
In 2017, Lou Ella’s mettle would be tested anew. At a conference, another door opened for her when she heard the assistant dean of admissions for the Stony Brook Medical School speak.
“I went to the conference hoping to come away with information on medical schools that would be a good fit for a non-traditional student such as myself,” she said. “I was so impressed to learn that Stony Brook did holistic admissions, which view an applicant’s worth as a person rather than basing admission solely on GPA and SAT scores. Not to mention that Stony Brook is a premier research institution and the post-bacc program is linked to the medical school.”
Attending Stony Brook meant leaving her daughter, two sons and eight grandchildren on the West Coast and beginning a new life in New York.
“I cried every day for the first two weeks here,” Lou Ella said. “I got through my darkest hours with lots of prayer. My children totally support me in living my dreams and we have learned to adjust and make the most of this wonderful experience and amazing journey.”
In the meantime, Lou Ella will be renewing her California nursing license and applying for a New York license to keep her options open.
“I don’t know what other 55-year-olds feel like, but I feel like a 22-year-old in body with the experiences of my actual age. In other words, I have the strength, energy, motivation and determination that I possessed three decades ago, but the wisdom that can only come with life’s experiences.”
Lou Ella has taken full advantage of the wide array of resources to make her baccalaureate premed experience at Stony Brook less arduous.
“One of the resources that has helped me tremendously is the Academic Success and Tutoring Services (ASTC), which offers free weekly tutoring for my courses. I get as many as three one-hour appointments per week,” she said.
“Another great resource I utilize is the residential tutoring service, also provided by the ASTC, which provides walk-in tutoring Monday through Thursday nights. If that’s not enough help, there are also the Learning Centers for math, chemistry and chemistry lab. These learning centers are staffed with TAs and professors and I’ve found them incredibly helpful, especially with challenging homework problems and lab assignments. I think that Stony Brook should be the model of academic success for all college campuses.”