Her youthful educational detour made Liberal healthier
If your public-health project needs a shot of enthusiasm, competence, and can-do spirit, Elizabeth Irby is your go-to team member in Liberal. A highly qualified nurse, Irby has contributed to a wide array of local initiatives, from vaccination and WIC services to low-income clinic establishment and support for breast-feeding mothers. She’s trained countless Boy Scouts in first aid basics, provided on-the-spot healthcare for Liberal High School marching band members who encountered unexpected injuries, and leveraged her friendliness to make life better for friends and neighbors.
Though Irby wanted to become a nurse for as long as she can remember, the path from aspiration to achievement took an unexpected detour to Southwest Kansas from her childhood home in Manhattan, Kan.
“Isn’t that funny how that sometimes happens?” she said. “My life caused our family to warn parents, ‘Don’t let your kids go off to some town or place you’ve never heard of … they might stay there for good!’”
As a little girl, Irby loved to dress up in secondhand nursing uniforms her mother found at thrift stores.
“She’d make me a paper nursing cap and draw a red cross on the front,” Irby recalled, “and just as soon as I graduated high school, I enrolled at Kansas State to complete the prerequisites for nursing school.” Three years into the process, a friend invited Irby to spend the summer in her hometown and intern with her father — obstetrician Dr. Ricardo Patron.
“I was able to live with their family, but outside the Patrons, I didn’t know anybody. So I signed up for a women’s softball league, and met some pretty nice people.” One of them was coach Brett Irby. “And we fell in love and 27 years later, we’re still together.”
The romance upended Irby’s carefully crafted career plan. She had already been accepted to the prestigious nursing program at Baker University, so Irby dutifully returned to Topeka to complete work on her bachelor’s of nursing. That lasted until Christmas, “when we decided we just could not be away from each other any longer,” she said. “I moved to Liberal the following year.”
Irby had assumed that three years of college and a semester of nursing school would add up to employability. She applied to the hospital, only to learn that no certificate meant no job offer. She applied to the nursing program at Seward County Community College, certain she would breeze through the door.
“I thought pretty highly of myself, but I wasn’t accepted,” she said. “That knocked me back a few notches. I whined a little bit. Thank goodness for Pat Brown, a retired nurse who helped me get a job at Southwest Medical Center as a CNA, and encouraged me to reapply to SCCC. But that first year, I didn’t do any actual schooling, and that was kind of tough. My parents said, ‘you moved out there to be a CNA?’ and I didn’t have a good answer.”
Irby felt failure keenly.
“Neither of my parents were college graduates. They worked for K-State and retired with 25 years plus of service,” she said. “So, from the earliest age, they had expressed their desire that I complete a college education.”
In time, Irby did gain acceptance to the LPN class at Seward, continued through the RN level, and went to work.
“I will admit, I am not a good student,” Irby said. “Even as a nontraditional student, who people assume will take things more seriously. I’m not a good test-taker. And the first time I went to take my state boards, I didn’t pass. I remember driving home from Amarillo, and bawling all the way home. I took them again, and passed.” She would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Oklahoma Panhandle State University.
Over time, Irby explored different areas of nursing and made adjustments as the family grew to four. Working 12-hour shifts at the hospital, including weekends, and paying daycare was a burden. Irby experimented with working as an adjunct instructor at SCCC. Eventually, she made her way to the county health department as clinical director, and found additional ways to improve the health of the community. WIth her friend and former bridesmaid Peggy Luck, Irby volunteered to teach children at Kid Connection the importance of hand washing and hygiene, adopting the role of “Mrs. Germ.” As her son, Mitchell, worked his way up to Eagle Scout, Irby volunteered to teach first aid and CPR merit badge classes.
“I even paid to go to the national Scout jamboree in Virginia and maintain the MASH clinic unit for 4,000 Scouts,” she said. “I loved that.” Irby also go involved with the LHS Band Boosters, First United Methodist vacation Bible School and youth group, and with her daughter Rebecca, explored the world of musical performance and drama through community theater.
“You hear more negative talk about our youngsters than positive,” she said. “I like to be one of those positive voices.
In 2015, Irby returned to the hospital where her career began as director of performance and risk management. In 2019, she was promoted to staff development coordinator for the SWMC staff and community groups. Meanwhile, in a perfectly balanced closure to the generational loop to hold a college education as the standard, her son, Mitchell, attended the University of Kansas, and her daughter, Rebecca, began college at SCCC where mother and daughter will appear in the 2020 spring musical together.
All in all, her life work has aligned with her childhood ambitions, though white hats are no longer standard garb for nurses.
“Life doesn’t always end up like you think when you’re a young person who falls in love and changes course,” she said. “But then, it also has a way of placing you exactly where you need to be.”