How this former Navy pilot found her groove, working in the ER

Lisa McLean
January 28, 2020 - 1:15 pm
Former Navy pilot finds her groove as an ER nurse

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bailey

When Elizabeth Bailey was little, she was fascinated by the airshows that she saw while living near NAS Pax River in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. She wasn’t the kid who liked playing with dolls but preferred Matchbox cars instead. And when she was in middle school, she played with the idea of perhaps flying one day.

 She said she always thought she would be a nurse, and in high school expressed that desire, but her high school math teacher suggested she go another path.

“She thought I would be good at aerospace engineering,” Bailey said.

There weren’t as many schools offering that major, but one of them was the Naval Academy.  And at a time when few women were being accepted at the male-dominated school, she decided to go against the naysayers who prognosticated that she would have a slim chance of being accepted.

 “I was told not to get my hopes up because they don’t accept that many women.”

She applied anyway and got in.

 “At that time the Academy only accepted 10% of the women applicants,” Bailey said.

Before she graduated in 1991, she applied for flight school. In 1993, shortly after receiving her wings, the combat exclusion was lifted for women, which opened up her choices. She was selected and trained to fly the SH-60B Seahawk Multimission naval helicopter. The helicopter had an anti-submarine hunting platform with two torpedoes used for surveillance and rescues.

“We didn’t have guns or other cool things,” she said. “We couldn’t defend ourselves.”

How this former Navy pilot found her groove, working in the ER
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Bailey

Bailey served on the cruiser, Vella Gulf CG-72 in the Middle East. She said she didn’t find the male machismo that is associated with fighter pilots and found a supportive group in her squadron. “They were used to women,” she said. “It was a really good environment.”

At the age when most twenty-something adults are finding themselves, Bailey found herself dealing with the deaths of some of her fellow pilots in training accidents. She said it was a humbling experience because the people who died were some of the best.

“My mom asked me where I wanted to be buried,” she said.

When she left the Navy after 14 years of service, she decided to stay home with her children for a few years. The nursing bug came back into her life when she took care of her sick grandmother. She expressed her desire to go to nursing school, and her grandmother said. “Aren’t you too old?” she recounted laughing.

"My mom said, ‘I always said you should be a nurse’”

When she was stationed in Texas with her active-duty husband, she finished her nursing degree at the University of Texas and has been a nurse in Maryland since 2014. She is now working towards becoming a nurse practitioner. She credits her military experience with instilling discipline and learning how to deal with stressful situations.

Bailey said what she learned in flight school prepared her for her job working in the emergency room at a hospital. “I can slow my breathing, and play what if,” she said. “I plan ahead with my patients.”

She also developed a thick skin while at the Naval Academy. “You have all these people yelling at you and telling you that you don’t belong. It was very “Lord of the Flies.” In my work environment, tempers flare in the ER, and instead of getting upset, I turn it around.”

She also learned how to appreciate all the people that are involved in getting the job done. She said she never directs people to do things she wouldn’t do herself.

“I don’t think I’d be half as effective as a leader had I not had all this experience behind me,” she said. “I don’t pretend to know stuff I don’t.”

The one thing she’s never done is tell her three girls that they can’t do something. Of her three daughters, the youngest at fourteen, shows an interest in being a pilot just like her mother.

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Reach Lisa McLean:  lisa@connectingvets.com