A Measure of Success: The People You Meet Along the Way

Mar. 10, 2015
Helping HandsWhat if you, like radiation therapist and educator Elva M. Dawson, found yourself recognizing an unmet need so great it could fill a stadium?

Would you say, “That’s too big an issue," or "I’m only one person?” Or, is it possible you would follow Elva and others onto a path that could make dreams come true for you, your colleagues and your patients?

Life Happens and the Spirit of Giving Responds

At age 17, a mysterious autoimmune condition called sarcoidosis, with no known source or cure, struck Elva. Despite the fatigue and breathlessness she experienced, Elva chose to pursue a career in radiation therapy as an undergraduate at the Chicago State University. All it took to propel her into a lifetime in the field was one suggestion from Phyllis Thompson, the program director and a long-time ASRT member, to shadow radiation therapists for a day.

Later, in her 30s, as Elva worked in radiation therapy and pursued further education, the tiny bundles of inflammatory cells expanding in her lungs led to a health crisis. Elva found herself at the bottom of stairs that she had climbed the day before in her work as an educator, but couldn’t find the breath and energy to take even the first step.

By that time, she had worked as a radiation therapist and earned a master’s degree, along with finding a new calling as an educator in the allied sciences. Elva also was working on a doctorate, so she began to use a wheelchair and then a scooter, all while encouraging her students to reach their goals.

“If I can finish with a scooter and oxygen, you can make it,” Elva tells her students when they are feeling discouraged.

The Company and Mentors We Find and Nurture

Elva stresses that she hasn’t gone through these experiences alone. On the financial and professional side, she credits three ASRT Foundation scholarships for helping to realize her dream of earning a doctorate. At the time, her husband had suffered a serious accident while they were paying tuition for their daughter, and Elva was caring for her father, who found out he had cancer.

In the face of these challenges, the tuition assistance helped Elva concentrate on a question that had haunted her since she had crossed the stage to receive her master’s degree diploma and was struck by how few minority students were looking back at her.

“I didn’t want to be the only minority at any professional setting, classroom or clinic," Elva says. "So I asked, ‘How do I turn this around?’ I have to go to those rooms where change is taking place and be vocal in stating the needs of minority students.”

As she pondered this question, along with juggling her multiple responsibilities to the school, colleagues, family, friends, church and students, Elva discovered the ASRT Foundation site and decided to “take a chance.” That one leap of faith resulted in receiving scholarships in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

“I couldn’t have been more thankful for the assistance,” says Elva. “The scholarships provided me with the opportunity to complete my degree and placed me in a position to help others obtain theirs. I now tell others who think they can’t go back to school to look around for these opportunities.”

Reaching Back to Lend a Hand

The direct result of all the assistance and encouragement Elva received — from her epiphany at a graduation ceremony to achieving her doctorate — is the dissertation that features a story about the West African Sankofa bird. This mythical creature, for Elva and others like her, symbolizes the ability that each person has to bring others with them on the journey forward. A literal translation of the bird’s name, Sankofa, means: “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” Appropriately, Elva’s dissertation gave the six students who participated in the study an opportunity to speak about their experiences as radiography students.

Each One Can Reach One — and More

In the radiologic sciences, inspiration can be found in many places, as Elva’s story proves. She wants to become more involved as a volunteer for the ASRT Foundation, and several others have stepped forward in the same spirit to assist their colleagues.

Last year it was Marie Racine, a veteran and radiation therapy educator, who endowed a scholarship for radiation therapists who want to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. This year, Elaine Chin and Steve Hardy endowed a scholarship that can grow through donations from individuals and groups, and which honors the pioneers of radiation therapy while supporting individuals in radiography who seek entry into the discipline.

As one voice, these radiation therapists-turned-educators are calling to others in the profession to help colleagues like Elva and pay it forward on a dream. That dream is to help more applicants with inspiring stories achieve their educational goals.