Grace Emori

Dialogue with an Adventist epidemiologist

A native of California, Grace Emori was among the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned by the United States during World War II. After the release of her family in 1943, Grace attended Adventist schools in southern California. She received both her undergraduate and master's degrees in nursing from Loma Linda University.

Ms. Emori is currently an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a commissioned officer in the U. S. Public Health Service and holds a rank equivalent to a Navy captain. She has worked at the Loma Linda University Medical Center and has taught at Atlantic Union College in Massachusetts.

Ms. Emori has been awarded many honors, including Loma Linda University's Alumna of the Year in 1992. Because of her dedication and priorities, Emori has earned the respect of her peers and friends.

You lived your childhood through World War II, not a pleasant time for Japanese-Americans in the United States. What's your feeling about those days?

I'm a third-generation Japanese-American. When the war came, the U.S. Government feared that persons of Japanese ancestry would be sympathetic to Japan. Without any specific criminal charges or trial, we lost our civil liberties and were forcibly removed from our jobs and homes. Our family was taken from California to an Arkansas internment camp in 1941. At the camp, each family was assigned one room in hurriedly constructed barracks. For privacy, we strung up wires and hung bed sheets to create tiny but separate rooms. We ate in mess halls with other families and shared community bathrooms and showers. I was only six years old at the time, but remember that we kids had a great time. It was like summer camp--only all year round, and for three whole years! We went to school there, and I even remember my first grade teacher's name--Ms. Jones.

Almost 50 years after that internment, the U.S. provided reparations for the Japanese-American internees. And you were among those to benefit by this arrangement.

Not only me, but everyone in my immediate family received $20,000 each as part of the reparation. God has been good to us, and the money was too significant to be spent on ourselves. All six of us decided to do something special with this money so that it could be of enduring value. We agreed to set up an endowment fund at Loma Linda University School of Nursing for scholarships. There is another reason why we set up the Emori Endowment Fund. We all attended church school from grade school on up, and we benefitted from Seventh-day Adventist education. We didn't have a lot of money, and tuition was expensive, and yet we all made it through college. We wanted to say a big "thank you" to all those who helped us. And as a family, we wanted to provide in some small way for future generations.

That's beautiful! Before we speak about your nursing career, tell us about your family. How long have they been Seventh-day Adventists?

My mother and her brother became Adventists while they were in their 20s. It all started with a knock at their door by a literature evangelist. My father is not an Adventist, but he has always been supportive of us going to church and church school. He has been a hard-working farmer, and a good father to me, my sister, and my two brothers.

My older sister Helen has served for 10 years as dean of the School of Nursing at Loma Linda University. Walter, the older brother, is a physician in Oregon with a special interest in improving medical services in Russia. He has exchanged several letters with Alexander Solzhenitsyn and has established a rehabilitation hospital for children in the Russian writer's home town. My other brother is a businessman who brokers computer sales, also in Oregon. All of us are active in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Who has exerted the strongest influence on your life?

First, my parents. By role modeling and discipline they taught us the meaning of absolute integrity, caring for each other and for others, living simply, and the value of hard work. They helped us to define who we are. Then, three outstanding mentors: Dr. Frederick Hoyt, who was my 9-10th grade teacher; Dr. Maureen Maxwell, associate dean of the graduate program in nursing; and Dr. Harvey Elder, my supervisor at the Loma Linda University Medical Center. They affirmed me as a worthwhile person, helped me develop a sense of purpose, and taught me the skills to achieve my goals.

What led you to choose your career?

In my era, a typical Adventist girl's career choices were nursing, teaching, and secretarial. I chose nursing, and it has been a very satisfying profession for me. I've worked in direct patient care and in nursing education, which I've enjoyed, but I love epidemiology. I was the nurse epidemiologist in the infection control program at the Loma Linda University Medical Center for six years before accepting a position at CDC. When I was invited to join the CDC I wondered if I could make the transition from a church-related institution to a secular environment. But I've had no problems, because my supervisors have respected my religious commitments and my colleagues are compassionate and caring human beings.

What's your role at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

The CDC is an agency of the U. S. Public Health Service whose mission is to promote health and prevent disease. It is renowned for its application of epidemiology, the study of conditions that affect populations' health. We attempt to identify factors that cause these conditions and then develop prevention programs. I help hospitals understand and prevent hospital-associated infections. After collecting data from hospitals throughout the country, we analyze and report them to policy makers in government, industry, and health care.

What's your favorite part of the job?

I enjoy developing new methods for applying epidemiologic data to improve the quality of patient care. The best part is talking with health care providers about how to use the data to make infection control decisions, and then watching their excitement as it all comes together. Although I'm now eligible to retire after 20 of service at CDC, I think I'll keep on working because I don't want to miss out on all the new and challenging programs we are developing.

If you wished to change jobs right now, what would you do?

Nursing again, with no hesitation. But away from my job, I enjoy bringing people together. There's nothing I delight in more than to bring my work colleagues and church friends together to share a vegetarian meal. We always ask God's blessing on the food. It sets a wonderful climate for becoming acquainted and learning to appreciate each other. Being a dietician would have been a good career, but I think they have to concentrate too hard on making the food nutritious!

What advice do you have for Adventist youth interested in nursing careers?

I urge young people, both men and women, who are interested in nursing to attain the highest level of education they can. They should not be satisfied with staying at the entry level, with an associate degree or diploma in nursing. Advanced degrees will better prepare nurses to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing health care delivery system. Because hospitalization is costly, inpatient stays are becoming shorter. Hospitals are downsizing and becoming one intensive care unit, which requires fewer nurses, who must be highly skilled in critical care techniques. Increasingly, patients are being given care in their own homes by professional nurses. This requires a special caring touch. Adventist philosophy of life equips young people to give that.

Have you had opportunities to share your faith with colleagues?

I'm privileged to work with men and women who are uniquely skilled in their work. But like the rest of us, they have personal problems and confront crises. Unfortunately, many are either indifferent to religion or don't believe there is a God. Almost everyone in my office knows that I'm a Seventh-day Adventist and that God is the central focus in my life. I'm often the one they lean on when they are going through difficult times. I think of those times as my gift to the special people I work with.

How do you nurture your own spiritual life?

Through personal devotions and corporate worship with a church family. I'm learning more about the importance of meditation--actively listening to the voice of God. We are constantly distracted by the demands of living, and it's easy not to set aside some quiet time to discern God's will for us each day. What a loss! For me, corporate worship includes not only participating in Sabbath morning worship activities, but also nurturing others to help their faith grow and reaching out into the community. I've been a hospice volunteer for about two years and have walked the last mile with many terminally ill patients. Prayer has been precious to me, these patients, and their families. I'm blessed to be part of a church family that is alive and growing, and whose mission is to know Christ and to make Him known.

What role does prayer play in your own devotions?

For much of my life I felt that the Bible admonition, "Pray without ceasing" was impractical. Then I read something that helped me understand its meaning. Now, I pray silently for every human being I meet, asking God to bless that person and to satisfy his or her needs. As a result, I can't be indifferent or negative toward someone I've just placed in God's hands! That's exciting, because it means that I'm in active partnership with God all day long.

As you reflect on your achievements, any particular feelings?

Gratitude and thankfulness. God has been good to me. I have tasted His goodness and experienced His forgiving grace. I am grateful for my family and their support. The church's educational system and fellowship have been absolutely essential to me. I've been a church elder for almost 10 years, and that responsibility has helped me to grow spiritually. I think people working in a secular environment like me find the church family doubly important as a source of support and encouragement.

Interview by Alicia Goree. Alicia Goree is a junior print journalism and public relations major at Southern College of Seventh-day Adventists, in Collegedale, Tennessee, U.S.A.