Changing lives, one interaction at a time

Elizabeth Dawson is just one person, and yet, she has changed the lives of thousands of people.

Elizabeth Dawson, senior in the School of Nursing

A student in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at the University of Washington Bothell, she also works as a full-time nurse at the Swedish First Hill Campus, volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate for the King County court system, and serves on the health and education board of Robin’s Nest Children’s Center.

On top of all that, she is preparing for her wedding in Mexico at the end of the year.

“It has been the most exhausting year,” Dawson said. “I go to work, come home, sleep for an hour, go to school and head back to work. I graduate at the end of the quarter and joke that I will be terribly bored next year with all the extra time on my hands.”

Lasting legacy

Dawson comes from a long line of health care workers; her mother was a nurse, as was her grandmother and great-grandmother. She fought against the idea of becoming a nurse herself, wanting to forge her own path instead.

Hard as she tried, though, the direction of her life became clear at age 18 while on a trip in South Korea. She was there to spread her grandfather’s ashes at the on-site hospital cemetery, a place he had served as a medical missionary.

While that trip marked the end of one life, it sparked the beginning of another.

It was there Dawson met a man who lived in a small community of lepers and who had not interacted with anyone outside of that community in 60 years. “The stigma this man had fought against his whole life deeply affected him. When I went to shake his hand, he refused and looked down,” she said. “It was in that moment that I decided I would dedicate my life to nursing and that my mission would be to treat every patient with dignity and respect.”

Since making that commitment, Dawson has had many proud moments as a nurse. Working in the surgical unit at Swedish, most of the patients she cares for have cancer and are awaiting major operations. Due to COVID-19, she says patients are only allowed one visitor and only between the hours of 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.

“I sit with them when they are alone and most scared. It’s in those late-night hours when they are by themselves, thinking about their diagnosis or anxious about a surgery, that I get to be there to hold their hand and comfort them,” she said. “That is my why — it’s what keeps me going.”

Compassionate, not complacent

Attending UW Bothell has helped Dawson uphold her mission of creating equity among patients. She explained that growing up in the Midwest, she had never been exposed to the level of poverty that exists in Seattle.

“The two disparities I have found to be most troubling as a nurse are racial and class inequity,” she said. “We largely serve the homeless and people of color. It is abundantly clear that much of our patient population is not privy to the same resources to which I, a white woman, am accustomed.”

Dawson said her classes at the University provide insight into how structural racism, for example, perpetuates inequality. Just last month, a social worker who serves the unsheltered came and spoke in one of her classes.

“Hearing her perspective and the stories she shared of what the homeless have to go through every day just to survive helps me have empathy and patience,” she said. “No matter how often I am exposed to these communities, I will never become complacent.”

A member of her nursing unit’s ethics committee, Dawson works to help fellow health care workers remain compassionate and aware of inequities that are evident in the people they serve.

“We meet every month to discuss disparities in health care and the ways in which we can both prevent and address them,” she said. “Much of what we do is related to making sure our unit has the highest standards of care possible according to evidence-based practice.”

Appointed advocate

Dawson’s passion for serving under-resourced communities led her to become a court-appointed child advocate in King County. Through this volunteer work, she makes a life-changing difference for children who have experienced abuse or neglect.

Working with juvenile court judges, Dawson typically handles one case at a time. She gets to know everyone in the child’s life: parents and relatives, foster parents, teachers, medical professionals, attorneys and social workers. She uses the information she gathers to inform judges of what the child needs and advocates for them until they are placed in a safe, permanent home.

“I love kids, and I love to serve my community,” she said. “It’s really fulfilling to do such meaningful work.”

She first started working with children several years ago when she interned at Robin’s Nest Children’s Home in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Because her best friend was the director of the organization, Dawson applied for the internship and ended up spending two months fostering relationships with children ranging in age from infancy to adolescence.

“That period was the most transformative of my life. It instilled in me a desire to combine my passion for nursing and for children and channel it toward my long-term goal of opening a health care clinic overseas,” she said.

Nurture across nations

Dawson is still working with Robin’s Nest to secure grant funding to support the physical and educational needs of each child it serves.

Elizabeth Dawson and her fiancé Velijko Kopjar

This fall, Dawson was also one of 18 applicants to be awarded a King County Nurses Association scholarship, for which she says she is “extremely honored and grateful.”

Not content to be bored, she is now planning for graduation in a few weeks, her wedding in Mexico and a possibly move to Croatia (where her husband-to-be is from) to live and work for a year.

“It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say nursing is in my blood, given the family history,” Dawson joked. “It is just my nature to want to care for others and to continue that legacy of love and nurturance — hopefully overseas.”

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