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College of Health and Human Sciences

2013 Alumni Fellow: Dr. Elizabeth combines nurture, education in work with families of very sick children

Monday, February 4, 2013

Elizabeth Purcell-Keith, PhD

Patients’ families and colleagues call her Dr. Elizabeth. They also call her a solace, an angel, an anchor.

Elizabeth Purcell-Keith, medical family therapist and crisis intervention specialist at Medical City Children’s Hospital in Dallas, supports, educates and comforts families whose children face life-threatening medical issues.

She is the College of Human Ecology’s alumni fellow for 2013. She will be honored at the K-State Alumni Association’s Alumni Fellow Reception and Banquet on Feb. 21.

In 2006, she received the prestigious George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge for her work in providing care and comfort to families of extremely sick children. The award recognizes “individuals and organizations that epitomize the best of American Spirit and stand out as good citizens, role models and modern day heroes to the nation’s youth.”

A copy of a story about Dr. Elizabeth published on April 9, 2006, in the Sunday Life section of the Dallas (Texas) Morning News was sent with her nomination for the honor. It looks at her unusual career and the world of fear and anguish she help calm.

Dr. Purcell-Keith, a registered nurse, received three degrees from the college: a bachelor’s and master’s in family studies and child development. Her doctorate is in general human ecology. Tony Jurich was her major professor.

From New York City, the honoree came to Kansas when her husband was stationed at Fort Riley.

While on campus, she will speak with family studies and human services students on topics such as infant attachment, family crisis, coping with chronic illness and building a career.

She will address End of Life: Caring for the Family Experience Loss at 9 a.m. Feb. 20 at Mercy Regional Health Center. The lecture is free but requires registration. Call 785—587-5413 for information.

“Dr. Purcell-Keith brings to the table two important qualities lacking in the other ancillary staff: her formal training in a medical field, and the fact that families do not perceive her as having an agenda or specific point of view,” one pediatrician said of her.

Prepared by Human Ecology communications

Dr. Elizabeth talked with Lucy, 18, who holds her baby Jadyn. When she was born, Jadyn weighed about 15.5 ounces. She had heart surgery before this photo was taken on March 15, 2006. (c)Barbara Davidson/The Dallas Morning News


Dr. Elizabeth nurses parents in their worst of times


By Karen M. Thomas

Staff Writer

The women file in slowly.

Dr. Elizabeth Purcell-Keith has invited them into a small conference room as Medical City Children’s Hospital for a parent support group.

They are the mothers and grandmothers of extremely sick children. Some of their babies were born prematurely. Other babies have undergone surgery to correct congenital heart illness. There are older children waging war with cancer and toddlers battling illnesses that doctors struggle to define.

The women are exhausted. Some have spent days, weeks and even months at their children’s bedsides, their world shrunken to a hospital ward. But now they look confused. The conference table is covered with yarn. Someone has written on a dry erase board, “Welcome to Yarn Yoga.”

“Oh, you came,” Dr. Elizabeth says to one hesitant mother standing in the doorway. Dr. Elizabeth isn’t like the other doctors in the building. She doesn’t use her last name. She doesn’t physically treat the children. She holds a doctorate in family therapy, not a medical degree, and is a registered nurse. She is there for the parents.

Under Dr. Elizabeth’s gentle touch, parents find the strength and skills to wade through the medical decisions they must make. They learn to control the fear and stress that threaten to unravel them.

A medical family therapist, Dr. Elizabeth, 57, has worked at Medical City in Dallas since its neonatal intensive care unit opened nearly a quarter of a century ago. She says she is one of only a few such therapists who work full time in hospitals across the nation. Other hospitals offer similar services for families, but the care is often divided among several employees and agencies. Dr. Elizabeth has a rare combination of skills.

As a nurse, she says, she learned a lot about the disease process.

The babies she once cared for, she says, received excellent treatment. “But I found that we were leaving parents in the hall, crying.”

She went to graduate school and began to study crisis intervention so she could help parents. In 1983, Dr. Rachel Griffith and Dr. Eileen Milvenan, neonatologists at Medical City who believed in focusing on the family, offered Dr. Elizabeth a contract for work at the hospital.

Dr. Elizabeth conducts sessions for nurses and other hospital employees to help them understand the grief process. She serves on the hospital’s ethics committee, helping the group to stay focused on resolving conflict. Doctors refer families to her to better treat the children.

Dr. Eric Mendeloff specializes in treating congenital heart defects. His patients are usually within the first two years of their lives and require surgery. He says that despite physicians’ best efforts to explain, there are times when worried parents cannot absorb medical information.

“It’s overwhelming for them. Dr. Elizabeth is there to keep them grounded and remind them of the realities of things. She provides the stability and support that a family needs, and she does it in a way that is very calming,” he says.

Doing good

Dr. Elizabeth’s job isn’t performed in one-hour sessions behind closed doors. One of her favorite quotes, she says, is from St. Augustine. It says in part, “Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connected with you.”

So Dr. Elizabeth does her job in the hallways, over the telephone, in a hospital room and even at the yarn yoga.

In the conference room, volunteers from Michaels arts-and-crafts stores teach the mothers to knit and weave. It’s a brief escape for parents whose days and nights are spend bedside, a place where they can drop in for a moment’s relaxation, and a place where Dr. Elizabeth can make a connection.

A mother across the table sits quietly. At the start of the session, when the mothers introduce themselves, she says that her 7-year-old son has a cancerous tumor. Her eyes fill with tears.

A volunteer shows her how to cast stitches onto a loom. Now she works eyes cast downward.

Dr. Elizabeth greets other mothers and looks at the bags of yard that the crafts-store employees have brought. While she encourages others to take blankets and booties form a side table, Dr. Elizabeth has been watching.

Without any fanfare, she makes her way around the table and sits next to the worried mother. As the mother’s hands work, Dr. Elizabeth gently begins to ask. She wants to know what the woman is making. Then her voice becomes low and inaudible. These are personal questions that are softly plumbing the depth of the woman’s sadness.

The mother talks while her hands cast stitch after stitch.

This is Dr. Elizabeth’s way, meeting parents where they are, assessing how she can help and then going about the work of helping them.

Drawing on faith

It is difficult, emotional work. But Dr. Elizabeth says she is sustained by her faith. And her joy comes from knowing that she has helped nurture families and shored them up with practical skills that they can use for a lifetime.

Her ability to see hope for families during their darkest times comes in part from her own experience, she says. Dr. Elizabeth grew up poor in the housing projects of New York City and put herself through school. When she took her children back to see her childhood home, “they got in the elevator and they were glued up against the wall and cried,” she says.

But her past allows her to respect people from all walks of life, she says.

“I have great hopes for them. My folks were always, ‘Read, read, read,’ and everything was education. There was always a feeling that we could do what we set our heads to. It wasn’t easy. But you just keep going,” she says.

Families who have worked with Dr. Elizabeth describe her as a friend. But Dr. Elizabeth knows that even though she cares deeply for the families, she must draw professional boundaries. She doesn’t go to dinner with families. She doesn’t attend church with them. She doesn’t share too much personal information.

“I think one of the hardest things I have ever did is I a counseled a couple who was having really big, big problems,” she says. “Some years later, they invited me to their 25th wedding anniversary, and as much as I wanted to go, I didn’t. That is one of my personal rules for not crossing those boundaries.”

Preparing for problems

Sometimes, her work starts before an infant is born.

For the past two months, Dr. Elizabeth has spent time with Lucy, 18, of Aubrey. Lucy and her mother, Sheree, have asked to be identified only by first names for the family’s privacy. They arrived at the end of the yarn yoga session, and Lucy looks through blankets brought by volunteers. She selects a soft pink one for her new born daughter.

On Jan. 24, after spending two weeks in the hospital trying to control high blood pressure, Lucy gave birth to Jadyn. The baby was born more than three months early and weighed about 15.5 ounces, or the size of a can of soda.

But Lucy was prepared. Dr. Elizabeth had explained to her exactly how tiny her baby would be, bringing in a Beanie Baby stuffed toy as an example. And she told her what to expect medically. The baby already has had heart surgery.

“Dr. Elizabeth was definitely walking the walk with us,” says Sheree, Lucy’s mother. “She helped Lucy a ton.”

While mostly women have shown up for yarn yoga, Dr. Elizabeth assists other family members, too. She teaches communication skills that help keep marriages and relationship intact.

Many couples with sick children end up divorcing, she says. “Supporting them in their relationship is real important.”

Filling a void

Coleen Hallmark, 35, of Little Elm, sits at the opposite end of the conference table, knitting an intricate burgundy scarf. She has brought her own materials, having been taught to knit months ago by Dr. Elizabeth.

Knitting, she says, keeps her empty hands busy. Her 18-month-old, Patrick, died in August. He survived for just weeks after being diagnosed with rare cancer. Dr. Elizabeth and Colleen knew each other well by then. Their bond grew over the six months Patrick spent at the hospital after his premature birth in February 2004.

“Being in NICY is so terrifying,” Coleen says. “You have this little baby that needs you to take care of him, and you can’t. You are a useless parent. But Dr. Elizabeth makes you feel like you are a mom all the time. She’s a shoulder to cry on.”

When Coleen and her husband needed to talk to Patrick’s doctors, Dr. Elizabeth assembled them. And when the worst news of all came, that Patrick was sick and wouldn’t get better, Dr. Elizabeth helped the family arrange hospice care for Patrick. Now she stays connected to Coleen, calling every few weeks to check on her.

“When there is bad news, always it’s been, ‘Here comes Dr. Elizabeth around the corner to help,’” Coleen says. “I think the difference is that she has the therapy background, and her medical knowledge is so good.”

A lasting bond

The professional relationship Dr. Elizabeth forges with families can spill out of the hospital and last for years.

Frank and Robin Cornish of Southlake have a decade-long connection with Dr. Elizabeth. She has helped them through difficult medical times with five of their six children, with the relationship beginning shortly after the premature births of their twin girls. One of those girls, Danielle, didn’t survive.

“I was a little standoffish at first,” says Robin, 36. With a degree in psychology and personal experience with family therapy after a sibling’s death during childhood, Robin thought, “‘Oh, no, here she comes asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ “ she says. “But she never did that. She gently chipped away at my shell.

“She has this touch and these words. She has a way of giving you things that you need, but not shoving them down your throat. She gives you energy and peace so that even at the worst moment, you know it will be OK.”

When Robin was placed on bed rest while expecting a second set of twins nearly a year later, Dr. Elizabeth came to her hospital room each day, and their relationship blossomed. And when the couple learned that Blake, the youngest of their five children, had a heart defect before he was born, Dr. Elizabeth held Robin’s hand during the delivery.

Blake required a heart transplant, and the family traveled to California for surgery, spending four months there. Robin frequently called Dr. Elizabeth for support.

The five surviving Cornish children, Frank, 11, Gabrielle, 10, Sydney and Sarah, 9, and Blake, 5 – are all doing well. But Dr. Elizabeth taught Robin one lesson that she wants to share with others:

When a parent loses a child, Dr. Elizabeth suggests that families consider using their love for that child to help others. It keeps the love alive and allows families to heal.

It’s why Coleen has begun to knit blankets and scarves for others.

It’s why the women from Michaels have donated their time and supplies for yarn yoga. It’s why Robin has enrolled in nursing school.

She wants to become a labor and delivery nurse, taking her medical and personal knowledge to help others, just like Dr. Elizabeth.

“She taught me to use what I have here,” Robin says, pointing to her heart. “She is my role model. I have never met anyone like her. This is truly her gift.”

(This story was originally published in the Dallas (Texas) Morning News on April 9, 2006.)

This article was posted on Monday, February 4, 2013, and is filed under Applied Human Sciences, College News.