“Let’s have lunch and talk,” I asked Elizabeth over the phone. She hesitated for a while longer than I thought was really necessary, but then agreed to meet for lunch that Friday and talk about my intense interest in her.
I was starting a new program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta and was in quick need of a group of scientists with knowledge of nuclear radiation and its health effects. Arriving early for lunch, I waited at the table and contemplated the questions to ask about the position we had posted. She certainly had the “right stuff,” with her Master’s degree in nuclear engineering from New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her extensive experience at such a young age.
But we needed in addition someone who could travel around the country and visit sites of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, places from Washington State to South Carolina. While deep in thought I didn’t realize that the woman rolling toward my table was Elizabeth. Her smile was bigger than the wheels of her chair. Of course, nowhere in the application did it inquire about disabilities and I certainly didn’t ask about it on the earlier phone call.
I’m sure it was the look on my face that prompted her quick apology–that she should have perhaps mentioned her condition on the phone. We chatted over soup and sandwiches for a good hour and a half. We talked about her practice in the sub-specialty of health physics and about her experience in nuclear power plants in Connect, California, Tennessee, and Georgia. We talked physics, health effects of radiation exposure, risk communication with the public . . . and about the challenge of dealing with the progressive loss of muscle mass and control caused by her disease. We both knew it would take its toll in time.
But no one knew how rapid or slow the course of action for such a debilitating disease might be. “So, why try to outguess God?” she said. If ever I was stumped for a response . . . I tried to mimic her smile back at her, but she could smile using every tiny feature of her warm, peaceful face.
“Liz” was a brilliant woman with an outstanding flair for making the complex sound simple and exactly what the CDC radiation program needed. Before lunch was half over, I had forgotten about our need to have someone who could travel. It suddenly seemed as trivial as the spots of tomato soup I had dribbled onto my tie.
We needed this woman’s mind.
CDC needed her experience, her skills. Her obvious enthusiasm for her profession and excitement about the possibility of working for the world’s number one public health agency all but masked her confinement in that damnable wheelchair, which I had already started developing an attitude toward.
Liz worked for CDC for twenty years. I even had the pleasure of publishing scientific journal articles with her. (I thought I was one for detail!) She was not only a force for making the radiation studies branch of the CDC an internationally recognized research and health communication program, she brought the entire federal government workforce up a notch!
Liz lost her courageous battle with muscular dystrophy on August 25, a few days after she had asked that her feeding tube be removed. I attended her Memorial Service last week, a gentle place of worship for those of the Baha’i faith in the suburbs of Atlanta. She sang in the choir there every Sunday until a year before her death, when she too rapidly lost her ability to manipulate every muscle of her body except those of her Big Beautiful eyes.
I’ve changed my attitude toward wheelchairs. They do indeed allow people like Liz to roll into your life on a smile and a dream. I am a better person because I knew and worked side-by-side with Elizabeth Donnelly. And the CDC is a better place because this remarkable woman was there.
She will never be forgotten by any of those who were lucky enough to know her, to greet her most days and ask, “How you doing, Liz?” We all knew her reply before the words escaped her mouth: “I’m doing great! Isn’t it a wonderful day?”
I miss you, Liz. So does the world you graced.
Donations to the Muscular Dystrophy Association in the name of Elizabeth Donnelly, Decatur, GA, can be made at www.mda.org.
James Marshall Smith