Elizabeth White came to her profession later in life than most doctors, already in her mid-thirties when she made the leap from working nurse to medical student. And while many of her classmates chose to go into a specialty after graduation, White knew all along that she would go into primary care. “It’s the kind of medicine that always appealed to me,” she says, “because when I worked as an emergency room nurse in East Harlem I saw that many of the situations the patients came in with were the result of their not having had a primary care doctor.”
White has practiced medicine since 1990. She has a primary care practice at Settlement Health, a community health center in East Harlem, where she sees on average 25 patients a day. She has just 15 minutes per patient to solve their problems. “That includes the medical problems and the social problems; and often the medical problems are coming from the social problems,” she says. “In a short time you have to accomplish a great deal; you have to hear the story, come up with a solution as to what they’re presenting as the problem and then deal with what you perceive as a doctor as a whole other set of problems.”
White trained for her work at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx in a special residency in social medicine that prepares doctors to go into the inner cities to practice. She says she loves her work at the clinic, where she’s been now for 17 years, and can’t imagine working anywhere else, but the demands are great. “My patients are poor, and they’re struggling—they’re burdened by their lives and their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives,” she says. “I push my young patients to get their high school diplomas—that’s a challenge for them growing up in the ghetto—and I try to persuade them not to have children until they’re ready, and really encourage my Spanish patients to learn English. There’s a lot more than medicine that goes on in the office.”
“It’s intense,” she says, “really intense,” which is why she works every other day. Still, in those three days she packs in a lot. “I’m there part-time but the practice is full-time, because in a few days I have to squeeze in a lot of people. It’s a real challenge, even if you stay late, come in early, work through lunch; and there’s a lot of paperwork. In some sense I don’t mind paperwork because every piece of paper represents something good that’s going to come of it for the person, and what am I in this for but the patient? Even though it gets overwhelming, every piece of paper means somebody can go back to work that much faster, or they’ll get their disability, or whatever they need.”
White is married to Arnold Lieber, a retired psychiatrist and active member of the anti-casino groups No Saugerties Casino (NSC) and the Coalition Against Gambling in New York (CAGNY). The couple bought their house in Saugerties after renting a house in the region one summer to get a sense of the area. They almost bought a house in Woodstock until hearing about an old stone house in Saugerties with a waterfall nearby. They fell in love with the home and “right away we began to sink our teeth into the work of it,” says White.
She keeps a garden there that’s become a passion for her, although she laughs that it’s not very well thought out; “it’s more like something a kid would put together,” White says. “I’m always tempted to have someone come in and design it and I’ll keep it going, but I just don’t take that step and keep shaping it myself, and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It takes a lot of work, but it’s really fun.”