Press-Telegram (Long Beach)
Doctor works to erase effects of environmental racism
Dr. Elisa Nicholas may be one of the busiest people in Long Beach.
For more than four decades, she has been serving the health needs of underserved people of color and low-income children and families in the community.
She built a small children’s clinic in 1988 into TCC Family Health, an extensive health system with 13 health centers and two mobile medical clinics, which combined serve almost 40,000 patients a year — with 140,000 patient visits annually in Long Beach. She started home visits for new mothers and for patients whose asthma is poorly controlled.
But even Nicholas, who has the energy of a dozen people, can get tired. There is, after all, a pandemic going on.
“I’m exhausted,” she told me recently over the phone. “We have so much to do, and the coronavirus pandemic is making our jobs even more demanding.”
Nicholas and her recently vaccinated staff members, however, are up to the challenge.
Nicholas, who is White, is well aware of the disproportionate health disparities suffered by communities of color and lowincome people in Long Beach — caused by oil refineries, the 710 Freeway and other environmental threats on the city’s west side.
She has been a passionate advocate in addressing air quality issues with city, county and state policymakers.
She helped create the Long Beach Alliance for Children with Asthma, a community coalition
Nicholas with a patient.
— part of MemorialCare Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital — to improve lives of children with asthma.
On the TCC website, she talks about projects in the management of chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, obesity, and trauma and toxic stress.
Nicholas said she believes in educating public officials on the causes and harmful effects of environmental racism.
“My approach is to present the facts on what is causing these health issues so changes can be made,” Nicholas said. “I have built relationships with public officials over the years so we can sit down and talk about what should be done to improve community health.”
Nicholas’ path to Long Beach has been a somewhat adventurous one.
She was born in Lynwood and raised in Inglewood, to a father who, Nicholas said, was one of the first doctors of Greek immigrants in Los Angeles County. Nicholas estimated that he delivered more than 10,000 babies in his lifetime. Her mother was a surgical nurse.
As a young girl, Nicholas dreamed of improving the world and thought the best way to do that was through medicine, like her parents. She wanted to be a doctor but found it difficult to get into medical school. She was rejected by all the schools where she applied.
“It was really hard getting into med school,” she said, “but I had a dean who told me I could be a doctor if I kept trying.”
So she did. And Nicholas was eventually admitted to UCLA.
While there, she spent some time as a medical student in Haiti, where she met a doctor who became a role model for her in teaching her the art of medicine. After medical school, she completed a residency in pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine and earned a master’s degree in public health at UCLA.
Nicholas then did health work in Kenya and Uganda and returned to Haiti for a second time.
As much as she loved her work internationally, she ultimately returned to Long Beach to be closer to her family.
“My mother said I could help people in the United
States as well as the rest of the world,” she said, “and be closer to home.”
Nicholas began working at a small clinic, which has since evolved into TCC Family Health, which takes a holistic approach to health wellness, looking at everything from lifestyles to mental health to environmental issues like air pollution. She broadened their services to include adults, seniors and people with disabilities.
Yet, serving a community’s health needs is a difficult challenge, she said.
“It’s like peeling an onion,” Nicholas said. “There are racial inequities caused by historical racism, which affects generations of people and their DNA. We look at all of these factors, including environmental justice, in addressing the health needs of our patients.
“They are so strong considering what they have been through,” she said of the patients she serves. “We want them to reach their full potential.”
Has progress been made?
“Yes, we have improved air quality and other things,” she said. “But we have a long way to go in helping vulnerable people.
“We have to build understanding and look at the inequities in the United States,” she added. “We’ve tended to make rich people richer and poor people poorer. I want to continue to raise awareness of people to these problems. People seem to be listening more now, but I’m concerned that it may not last. We all have to stay at it and work harder.”
Nicholas referred to a poem by Robert Frost, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which is about someone who has “promises to keep before I sleep.”
With that, Nicholas said, she was busy and had to get back to work.