March 30, 2021
By Marilyn Huerta
Assistant Professor Elvira D. Gomez a first-generation Mexican-American who works in the School of Nursing at California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), was inspired to become a health professional when she witnessed her aunt Aurora, a practicing nurse, save the life of her father.
“Wow. She just came in here like a superhero, didn’t even break a sweat and knew exactly what to do,” Gomez said. “I remember thinking how I wanted to emulate what I saw – a composed, knowledgeable, calm, and professional woman, handling an extremely stressful situation with ease. I did not know it at the time but living through that experience shaped my career goals for life.”
Gomez’ father, a field laborer suffering with health issues, spent his days off from work filing immigration documents so he could legally relocate his family from Mexico to California in the early 1970s. Although Gomez was born in the Mayfield, California, she spent a great deal of her childhood with family members in Mexico and remembers questioning her aunt about the nursing profession.
“I remember her telling me about having a feeling of purpose and that every time she was able to help a patient in need, whether it was administering medications or something as simple as holding a patient’s hand, my aunt Aurora was teaching me about advocacy. As nurses, we have a unique and special relationship with our patients,” Gomez said.
Gomez found it hard to understand that advocacy did not come naturally for everyone. “It wasn’t automatic,” she said. “It comes from our own self-reflection.” She describes that advocacy in the nursing field asprotecting the patient and empowering them by being their voice.
Overcoming one obstacle after, Gomez continues to represent Mexican-American women in the nursing field. She has held several medical roles, obtained nursing degrees, a Ph.D. and is currently an Assistant Professor dedicated to educating others so that too can become health care professionals.
Prior to completing her doctoral studies at University San Diego in 2014, Gomez held several clinical roles including hospice nurse, research consultant, and emergency room nurse. She also worked in acute care surgical areas, such as telemetry, intensive care, pediatrics, and oncology. During her role as a hospice admissions nurse, she had the opportunity to work with nursing students and discover that she was interested in working in higher education.
“They always had the greatest questions and seemed so willing to learn more. I believe that as a nurse you never stop learning and that drive for learning is a commonplace for nursing students and it was something that I truly enjoyed being a part of,” she said.
Gomez completed her undergraduate and graduate studies at Cal State Fullerton from 2008-2013 and says that during this time she dreamt of being a health educator but it wasn’t until two CSUSM nursing students she was working with nudged her to become “their” professor. Gomez took their encouraging words to heart, applied for a clinical faculty position and was hired in 2009 by her mentor and the founder of the School of Nursing, Dr. Judy Papenhausen.
Today, Dr. Wendy Hansbrough is the Interim Director of the School of Nursing at Cal State San Marcos and when asked about Gomez, she said that “in her academic nursing role, Dr. Gomez has always kept students and their learning as her highest priority. In her experience at CSUSM, she has taught nearly all the clinical and lecture medical/surgical course. She brings innovative teaching strategies to her classroom, has high expectations of her students, and makes sure they feel supported in their nursing school journey. Prior to accepting a tenure-track position this year, she served the School of Nursing as the Assistant Director at the Temecula Campus, where she advocated for students and faculty to ensure a supportive space conducive to learning.”
Gomez Wants to Do More Research
At one point, Gomez and her aunt Aurora were the only medical professionals in the family, however she inspired four more cousins tobecome nurses alongside Aurora in Mexico. When asked what her next steps will be, Gomez said she’d like to return to researching topics such as “stress in nursing care” that she focused on during her graduate studies.
“As a practicing nurse, I noted that exposure to suffering by nurses is a common occurrence in the emergency department. The aftermath of caring and assuming the task of consoling the affected family members may be very challenging for a nurse. Secondary Traumatic Stress has been described as a natural condition that links to the presence of stressful events or the end result of helping; in conjunction with the empathy that the caretaker (nurse) has for their patients,” she said.
Gomez is also interested in exploring a nurses’ communication pattern after they have treated patients who suffer trauma and/or associated post-traumas. This study would reflect how experiencing traumatic events in an emergency care department impairs or alters a nurses’ communication. Her plan for study is to incorporate a mixed-method design including the themes she discovered in her past qualitative studies. She noted that some specific situations were traumatic for nurses especially when they treated pediatric traumas. Other themes that were discovered included “discomfort, maintaining emotional control, obstructed communication and deflection.” She said that “past research suggests that there is an inherent occupational risk for providers when exposed to patients and/or families who experienced or have been victims of some form of trauma.”
Another population she would also like to explore is the impact of stress on student nurses. “There is very little research in these areas, but it can have detrimental effects on how a novice nurse moves forward into practice, the susceptibility for decreased professional quality of life and potentially attrition from the profession,” she says.
Gomez questions how many frontline providers will experience secondary trauma and compromised communication patterns during this COVID-19 pandemic. She is currently preparing grant proposals to study pandemic effects on undergraduate nursing students and it will focus on variables such as professional nursing values and ethics, the potential for moral distress and moral resiliency.
“Our nurses and students are now at the frontlines fighting for us so we must fight for them too,” she said.