Catherine Domanska Elliott – the Women’s Health Medical Director at LCH, a nonprofit health center in southern Chester County with a dynamic care team dedicated to helping adults, teens, and children to be healthy and stay healthy – spoke with VISTA Today about her memories of growing up in Ardmore, her earliest jobs, and her choice to attend Vanderbilt as an undergrad.
Domanska Elliott also discussed her work at LCH, her priorities for the next year, and the challenges that lie ahead for her organization.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) and grew up in Ardmore, PA. I’m the only child of my parent’s marriage. They divorced when I was young and both remarried. I have a sister and brother on my mother’s side and a sister on my dad’s side.
What did your parents do?
My dad was a business consultant for many years who then turned his passion for collecting art and antiques into a business. He now owns The Little Gallery on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill where he sells art and collectibles.
My mom is an epidemiologist by training and the Senior Director and Head of Patient Centered Outcomes at GlaxoSmithKline.
Both of my parents have followed their interests, either later or earlier in their careers, which I think encouraged me to also follow my passion and interests!
What memories do you have of growing up in Ardmore?
I remember the train ran right in our backyard. I took the R5 a lot to visit friends in Narberth and other areas around the Main Line, so I was pretty independent at a young age.
I grew up right on Montgomery Avenue, and we would always have amazing lemonade stands in the summer.
Because we were so close to Suburban Square, we would walk to the Farmers Market on the weekends and wander around to the different stands.
I rode horses my whole life, so I was often in Chester Springs at the barn.
What got you into horse-riding?
My dad’s ex-girlfriend’s family owned horses. I started riding around 6 years old. I took to it right away and rode all throughout my life through college. Unfortunately, between work and kids I have not been able to keep it up but hope to return to it some day!
Did you play other sports in high school?
Not super successfully, but I did do a little swimming and track! I always preferred time spent at the barn, riding horses.
Did you continue to ride horses beyond high school?
I was on the equestrian club team at Vanderbilt. We would travel around the state of Tennessee and compete in shows. It was a wonderful part of my college experience.
What was your first job growing up?
I did a lot of babysitting with the neighbor’s kids and other local families. I worked, briefly, at American Eagle at the King of Prussia Mall. I was not cut out for retail.
What lessons did you learn from those early jobs that stay with you today?
I still love working with children and families. I always liked getting to know the families and their traditions. I typically worked with families for extended periods, so we became engrained in one another’s lives. This allowed me to really get to know the family I was working with. I wasn’t in it just for the paycheck – I really enjoyed the work.
Where did you go to high school?
I went to Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District until 10th grade before I transferred to Germantown Friends, a smaller private school.
What kind of music were you listening to back then?
Whatever was on Y100!
Why did you choose Vanderbilt for college?
I was going to be an education major, and Vanderbilt has an excellent education program. I loved the beautiful campus and they had an equestrian team.
Did you look at any other schools?
I did. I was deciding between Colgate and Vanderbilt. I think the warmer weather in Nashville may have tipped me towards Vanderbilt!
Looking back, was Vanderbilt a good choice for you?
It was a great choice. I am still in touch with many friends that I met there.
I ended up switching majors after my freshman year from education to anthropology. I was interested in bioarcheology and was excavating human skeletal remains in the Andes in Peru and Bolivia during my senior year and after college. One of my most interesting excavations was a pregnant woman and her fetus in Peru – maybe some foreshadowing of my future career?
What did you do after you graduated from Vanderbilt?
I came home and was nannying full time for a family and interning at the Penn Museum. I was looking to apply to Ph.D. programs for anthropology. I pursued that for a little while, and after working in academia at Penn, I decided that was not for me. I wanted something a little more hands-on and less pressure to keep up with the publishing.
I always had nursing in the back of my mind, so I applied to Nursing School at Penn and fell in love with women’s health. I did the second-degree Bachelors/BSN program that went straight into the Masters of Nursing program for my NP.
Why the change from education to anthropology as your college major?
I think I realized at the time, eighteen years old, that I wasn’t comfortable deciding what I wanted to do for the rest of my life at that moment. Someone suggested looking through the course catalog to pick out a variety of classes that might interest me. It was a 100-level anthropology class that I fell in love with, and I decided I would go with that.
As you look back on your career, who were the people who saw something in you and encouraged you?
My advisor in the nursing program at Penn, Wendy Grube. As my advisor, I would meet with her one-on-one, and she always provided a safe space for encouragement. She would listen intently and offer advice as I expressed my passion and frustrations throughout my time in the program. She was very influential in my grad school studies.
At LCH a few people have encouraged me to pursue leadership opportunities and broaden my interests to include healthcare administration and leadership. I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to help steer the direction of LCH and the women’s health practice. Our former Primary Care Medical Director, Rebecca Bixby, CRNP, encouraged me to take on the role of Women’s Health Medical Director and our former CEO, Alisa Jones had an interest in helping others see the potential for leadership in themselves as well. As a woman and a mother, having confident, passionate women and mothers as mentors, who believed in me, was motivating.
How did you get the job at LCH?
After grad school, I was working at a private practice in Lancaster – May-Grant Obstetrics & Gynecology – which is a large practice, so I was able to get a lot of clinical experience, but I had never seen myself working in private practice for too long. As the LCH’ers will say, we are mission-driven people, and that’s what sets us apart.
LCH posted a job and I had seen it a few times, but I didn’t think to apply for it because they were looking for bilingual candidates, and my Spanish wasn’t strong. One of my colleagues at May-Grant told me she couldn’t apply for the job but wanted to. She pushed me and encouraged me to do it. She told me to call her friend Teri who had started working at LCH the year before, and my conversation with Teri was so inspiring that I decided to apply.
When I got to LCH for my interview, I found out another graduate from my high school, Germantown Friends, worked there as well – Rebecca Bixby – who was the Primary Care Medical Director at the time. She saw a passion I had for my work, the population they work with, and women’s health, and the rest is history!
How long have you been at LCH?
Looking into the next year, what are your priorities?
LCH moved into the Women’s Health Office in Jennersville a little over a year ago. We have a beautiful space and wonderful staff. One of our goals is to manage the growth expected in our program, while maintaining the quality and compassionate care we provide. It’s a delicate balance to maintain, and I’m excited for us to meet that challenge. I think careful growth is important to preserving quality.
We just started Centering Pregnancy this summer, which is a group model of prenatal care. Centering Pregnancy is an evidence-based model to provide prenatal care in a group setting so the patients not only get the clinical care they need, but they also build social connections. It’s proven to improve clinical outcomes by decreasing rates of preterm birth and low birthweight babies and increasing breastfeeding rates and may also decrease rates of gestational diabetes and postpartum depression in women who attend the program. Additionally, we are hoping to help our more vulnerable women with fewer social and familial connections locally. By attending this program, they have the opportunity to build social connections, and hopefully decrease postpartum depression and isolation. Those are our primary goals for the program.
You have always had a passion for families.
I suppose that is a common thread! I’m not sure exactly where that comes from. It could be the anthropology side of my education, seeing how other people live and what they do and enjoy.
I think being an only child for the first ten years of my life probably has something to do with it. I mentioned my siblings from my parent’s other marriages, they’re all much younger than me – 10, 12, and 17 years younger than me.
How have you brought your deep appreciation of families and traditions into LCH?
I work with a lot of immigrants and have come to learn that if people can maintain their cultural diets and activities from their home countries, they can be somewhat protected from diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, depression, and mental health issues.
If a woman has a supportive family and strong cultural connection, she tends to do better. We have seen cases of immigrant women, who are separated from their families, suffer from depression, which can lead to physical symptoms and health issues. We celebrate our patients’ cultures, past experiences, innate knowledge and traditions!
Are we getting better at helping immigrant populations?
I think so, here at LCH, but in general there is still a lot to improve for this large segment of our population. We have a lot of services here at LCH. We support our members and their families through behavioral health, social assistance, primary care, women’s health, pediatrics, dental care and more.
What’s the next big challenge or priority for you this year?
Careful growth for the women’s health program. We don’t want to grow just to grow. We want to be able to maintain the quality of our compassionate, holistic care. We know our services are incredibly important for a lot of women who aren’t accessing them yet because they haven’t had the opportunity. Now they do.
It’s not just immigrants, is it?
No, it’s across all demographics. We provide excellent care with 30-minute appointments, which is unusual, and not always the most cost-effective option, but we value this time to learn about our clients, support them, and treat them.
What do you do in your free time?
I live in Lancaster City, right near Franklin & Marshall. I have two kids – a 3.5-year-old boy and a 9-month-old little girl. We like to get outside when we can on the weekends – walking, hikes, playgrounds. We also go out to eat more than we should – Lancaster has some great restaurants!
I’m a bit of a homebody. Since I spend so much time away from my home during the week, I really appreciate and enjoy the time I have there on the weekends with my family.
I listen to a lot of podcasts on my way to and from work. I have two hours in the car each day. I love Criminal, and I’m currently listening to Chasing Cosby. I also listen to a few OBGYN clinical podcasts.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?
A wise, empathic seven-year-old I know once expressed the importance of getting into someone else’s (figurative) shoes. At home, at work, with patients, co-workers and even other people out in the world – imagine if we all had a little more empathy for what others are living and tried to “walk a mile in their shoes”.
Publisher’s note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this profile.