By Emily Morrison

As the oldest child growing up in Wisconsin during the 80s, Mary Elsa Theobald contemplated going to Middlebury College and becoming a Spanish teacher. Her father, a university professor, had a different idea. When the family moved to Kentucky during Theobald’s junior year of high school, he suggested Mary Elsa become a nurse. The army was giving out lots of scholarships to nurses; Spanish teachers, not so much.

If it weren’t for an appointment Mary Elsa had with an NP at her doctor’s office, she might never have discovered her father was onto something. Theobald felt less intimidated speaking with the NP and realized, “She provided the same treatment for me that my doctor could provide. I knew that I wanted to do what she was doing.”

When Mary Elsa turned 18 she was accepted to Vanderbilt, enrolled in ROTC, spent 4 years as a cadet, and received her BSN. After another 8 years in the reserves, where she became a captain in the U.S. Army, Theobald received her MS from the University of Illinois at Chicago. 

Fortunately for Mainers, since that time Mary Elsa has worked for the last 27 years as an FNP in a rural health clinic. One of the major challenges Maine faces is attracting enough medical professionals like Theobald to rural areas to provide adequate healthcare. 

Because of this shortage, Mary Elsa’s days are fast-paced. At her clinic, “we have two doctors, one FNP, an RN, two medical assistants, two PSRs, a counselor, a care manager and an office manager. We prepare for the next day either in the evenings after seeing patients or early in the mornings before patients. We review charts, make sure that we have lab and imaging reports and notes from specialists. During the day the phone never stops ringing.” 

Performing primary care during a pandemic has not been easy, but Theobald has found plenty of rewards. Reflecting on the impact of her position she explains, “My mentor used to remind me that every time we immunize someone we are saving a life.” 

At the height of Covid-19, Theobald spent all day on her feet vaccinating somewhere between 800-1,000 Mainers at a shot.

“Before the vaccine was available, like many people, we were concerned about contracting COVID and subsequently infecting our families,” Mary Elsa reflects. “Then, there were the extra hours at work. It seemed like all of my coworkers were covering many jobs just to cover the needs… I think that many of my coworkers would agree that one of the most difficult things for us was that once the vaccine was available, some patients did not want to take it…The number of deaths that could have been prevented is tragic. At this point, after more than two years of Covid, it remains hard to understand why some people don’t trust the science.”  

Making peace with peoples’ personal decisions, Theobald has learned that whatever judgments one has about how someone will respond to something, “throw that out the window in a pandemic because reactions are deeply personal and often unpredictable.”

Focusing on the positives, Mary Elsa has discovered her workplace did a great job at caring for patients and each other. While they were isolating, her coworkers were the only people she saw outside of her family. Crediting her own family for helping her through, Theobald says, “My family was funny and helpful and I’m glad we were together.” 

When it comes to helping others through their health issues, Theobald reminds her patients, “Everyone is working on something. My job is not to judge but to help people live their healthiest lives.” 

As for her Spanish teaching career, Mary Elsa’s happy to learn a Spanish word of the day online and keep saving lives one patient and one immunization at a time. 

See this Section as it appeared in print here