A Look at a Leader: Elizabeth Paxton
“One of the best things about being a nurse today is the ability to make a difference."
There isn’t a single sentence that doesn’t end with a smile when Elizabeth Paxton speaks of nursing. Indeed, it’s easy to see that the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) for Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health thoroughly enjoys the opportunity to lead and serve others.
“One of the best things about being a nurse today is the ability to make a difference. As a bedside nurse, you can change the lives of patients you assist, as a manager you act as an advocate for your unit, as a director, you may lead several. In my role, I have the chance to positively influence care for kids across the state, sometimes even across the nation. It’s very gratifying,” Paxton says.
On paper, Paxton’s experience is pristine. She has been a pediatric nurse for more than 24 years and spent decades in the trenches, helping children in neonatal intensive care units (NICU] across the country. As a member of the executive team, she continues to make children’s health a top priority. Paxton currently oversees nursing operations at Riley at IU Health, as well as the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and the Pediatric Behavioral Health Unit at IU Health Methodist Hospital and the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at IU Health North Hospital. In addition, she works directly with the Indiana University School of Medicine chief of Pediatrics and other pediatric medical faculty on the development of clinical programs at Riley at IU Health. It’s a large job, but one Paxton does well.
Looking back, Paxton says she always knew what she wanted to do. Some people find their calling at an early age, Elizabeth Paxton was one of these fortunate individuals. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Paxton’s family ultimately uprooted to Birmingham, Alabama where she spent most of her formative years. “I started my nursing career in the eight grade, as a volunteer at the Children’s Hospital of Alabama,” she recalls. “I worked there most of my summers until I was a senior in high school. I knew nursing was what I wanted to do. Once I graduated from college, I immediately went back to that same hospital, working in their NICU,” she says. “I stayed for 10 years.”
From there, Paxton says, she decided to test out the leadership track, moving her three young children and husband across the country, to take a new job in California. “I worked in a community NICU, an NICU inside an adult hospital. But after awhile, I started to miss that unique environment that only a children’s hospital can provide—and that’s what drew me back,” she says. Hearing of a job at Riley, Paxton was intrigued. “I came in as the manager of the heart center. I was thrilled.”
As with all of her prior positions, leadership came naturally. “I fell into manager roles early on,” she recalls. “I was promoted to a charge nurse just eight months after I started my first job.” The impetus to be a leader though, bends back to Paxton’s early years: “When I was a young nurse, I had a mentor—a head nurse who had been at the hospital for 20 years. She was wonderful. She always listened and advocated for her staff and she taught me a great deal. And then she left and her replacement came-- someone who didn’t seem to care, who didn’t want to learn the staff’s names. I saw firsthand how damaging this could be--the negative impact that the wrong leader could make. It’s something I’ve never forgotten throughout my career.”
Mistakes get made, Paxton says, but there’s always a takeaway—a lesson that can be learned. Her advice to nurses today: “Be true to yourself. It’s so important to be passionate about what you do,” she says. “If you are caught in something that you don’t like, find another opportunity. Nursing offers a massive amount of options. Find a role where you get up and feel excited about what will lie before you. I feel that way every day,” says Paxton. “Seek out what will make you feel inspired.”
-- By Sarah Burns