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As part of Global Diversity Awareness Month, Liza Bruce, blind since her early 30s, shares her unique perspectives.

Liza Bruce with dog

As part of Global Diversity Awareness Month, we’re amplifying the voices of VCU Health team members with diverse perspectives and experiences who are helping others in their communities.
Liza Bruce, a senior training specialist with VCU Health, has taught thousands of team members each year what to expect at the health system during new team member orientation.
Blind since her early 30s, Liza shares what health-related challenges have taught her about life, love and diversity.

What is your role at VCU Health?

I am a senior training specialist in the talent management and organizational development group of our Human Resources department. Until earlier this year, I facilitated new team member orientations and professional development classes for team members, which I loved immensely. However, due to the pandemic, we moved orientation and all of our professional development classes from in-person to online.
Now, my new role is to work on professional development plans for our team members, and I am excited about this neat, new initiative.

How did you become an HR training specialist?

This is a long story, but in a nutshell: A diabetes diagnoses in my teenage years ultimately led me to losing my eyesight and needing a kidney transplant, then another. VCU Health saved my life more than once, so I jumped on the opportunity when a position in HR became available.
Diabetes is on both sides of my family, so it was not unexpected when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 17 years old. You learn how to deal with it. It was during my college years at UVA that I first experienced challenges in juggling diabetes and the erratic schedule of college. After graduation, I found the joy of work in a profession I loved. 

In my early 30s, my job required travel most of the time, and that ever-changing schedule was terrible for my diabetes. I still remember looking up from my paperwork in a hotel room on one of my work trips and seeing a molasses-like substance moving slowly through my eyesight. The next morning I was unable to read the itemized hotel bill. I still drove myself home from Chesapeake to Richmond that day, going 50 miles an hour on the highway the entire way. 

I can look back now and say that denial was my friend, for a long time. It turns out that the vessels in my eyes were leaking blood, and that night in the hotel my eyes had hemorrhaged. Yet I still could not accept that something was bad enough that my life was changing and I would need to ask for help. 

I immediately underwent laser procedures to cauterize the blood vessels, and soon I was having surgeries to try to repair the detached retinas in my eyes. I knew in my heart that I would not regain any of my sight and knew I had to give up driving. I suddenly understood why elderly people don’t stop driving even when their doctors suggest it. I was 31 years old, and I felt like my wings had been chopped off. 

My parents were awesome, and my mom stopped her Ph.D program to care for me and help me so I could keep working. Denial was ever present. I could never imagine that anything would be so dire that I could not work. 

Around the same time, we learned that my kidneys were failing, and I went on dialysis. It’s hard to imagine today, but I was carrying 40 pounds of extra water weight in my legs, and to climb the stairs, I had to reach behind each knee to pick it up and lift it to the next step. I began dialysis, and I was so weak that my mom would practically carry me in and out of the dialysis center. 

A few months later, I was told I needed a kidney transplant. Looking back, I can’t say that I saw it coming. In the moment, you only see the little changes, but cumulatively, they end up being enormous. When it finally hits you, it is still a shock. 

I was in a dark place right before my kidney-pancreas transplant in 1997. I remember praying as I was rolled into surgery that my mom and dad would be OK if I didn’t make it. 

I also believed it would be better if I didn’t make it. I was in excruciating physical and mental pain every day. I was married at the time, and the grief that I couldn’t be the best wife I wanted to be, or the best friend my friends deserved, was devastating. 

I felt I was a tremendous drain on my parents because I could not do anything on my own. My mom managed the 52 pills I took each day, was my round-the-clock care giver, and she stayed with me every single day in the hospital and most nights as well. My daddy went to work each day and was steadfast in his love and support for us. I grappled with not contributing in any way, but instead taking so much energy from everyone who helped me. 

I spent almost six months after my kidney transplant in the hospital due to complications. When I finally got home, things started to change. It was hard at first. I never thought I would be able to live on my own as a blind person. I didn’t even know how to cook or go to the mailbox by myself. But I learned how to live again, how to bowl, how to go swimming, even how to ski, and I returned to work. 

I started volunteering at a small nonprofit organization that advocated for the benefits of a diverse workforce called Virginia Business Leadership Network (VABLN). As their volunteer executive director, I was able to help the organization host many events to network with local businesses and promote their hiring of people from all walks of life, experiences and abilities. 

Cooper, my guide dog, was with me at an event and nuzzled up to a VCU Health executive at my table. That’s how I met their director of workforce development, and I always say that it is Cooper who gets the credit for getting me my job with VCU Health HR in 2012. 

Did you face any challenges or misconceptions on your journey to get where you are?

Yes, and I still do. It is hard for people to understand how you can do things when you are blind. I understand that, as I couldn’t imagine it myself when I was newly blind. I still cannot drive, but I have a wonderful husband who loves to drive, and I also use Lyft.
Systems are often not accessible, so my assistive technology is sometimes a challenge for me, IT and others, and it takes colleagues some time until they understand how I do my job and what I need to do it well. 

Personally, I am glad when people ask me questions. We can’t understand each other without talking to one another. When someone asks me, I can provide them solid information and they don’t risk making their own assumptions without having all the facts. I am an open book and will tell you everything, from how I fold money to tell it apart, to how I safely cut veggies and cook meals, to how I sort and do laundry. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job? 

The interactions with people. There is a lot of warmth during new team member orientations and training classes. While I share a lot of information during these events, the best part is learning from one another. 

Team members in a small class can share what is distressing them in ways they could not in a big group. Over and over I have found that no matter the size, it is always the right class size. Sometimes people stay after class just to chat. 

When you are going through something in life, it’s always the worst thing in the world for you in that moment. It’s hard to see options when you’re in the middle of it. I like listening to people and sometimes offering advice and encouragement. I’m a big hugger and used to give out great, big hugs to everyone. Of course that’s not possible right now during the pandemic, and it is something I miss terribly. 

I also love working at VCU Health. How could you not want to get up every day and go to work at the place where your life was saved three times? 

In addition to the kidney-pancreas transplant in 1997 — the kidney saved my life and the pancreas meant that I no longer had diabetes — I had a second kidney transplant in 2009. In 2016 I was at risk for pancreatic cancer, and one of our terrific surgeons removed my native pancreas, spleen, pylorus, duodenum and four-fifths of my stomach, and I do not have pancreatic cancer. VCU Health is my happy place, and I just love my people here.

Why do you think it is important to have diversity in health care? 

Diversity leads to a much fuller and richer life. One lifetime isn’t enough to experience and learn all the things there are to experience and learn ourselves, so we need other people in our life to listen to and learn from. 

We can learn from every single person that walks by us, every single person we encounter. A diverse workplace, whether in health care or other industries, gives us the opportunity to learn from and better understand more people from different backgrounds.
The neat little facts about someone else’s life we can find and benefit from amaze me. They help us appreciate one another more. And if you have the good fortune of talking to people from diverse backgrounds, I think it makes our huge world a little bit smaller. 

Do you have any advice for people struggling with the tragedies happening in the world right now, or obstacles they may face each day in their own lives?

It takes a lot of energy to deal with life, even under normal circumstances. In my own struggles, I have found strength in being close to people and activities that lift me up. For some people, that’s their families or their friends. For others it may be reading, being outside or spending time around animals. Make what gives you strength a regular part of life. 

I also believe in giving yourself and others a break. Holding on to anger and sadness is bad for your own well-being, so focus on what you need to do for self-preservation. I know that’s easier said than done, and I certainly did not practice this in my thirties when my health started failing.

Thinking back, I remember that I could not imagine that there would be anything good in the world after I lost my eyesight. Over the years, I have had an abundance of blessings to prove me wrong. 

A friend and I cycled 2,300 miles on a tandem bicycle after I lost my sight, and I wasn’t even an outdoorsy person then. Because I fell in love with cycling, I met my second husband, whom I treasure and love more than words can say.  David and I have been living our happily-ever-after life for 17 years, and I say my thanks for him every day. 

Although two decades ago I could never have imagined it, If someone told me today that I could get my sight back but only if I also lived the life I had before I lost my sight, I would not make the trade. 

I have been given a beautiful way to meet people, make friends and fall in love. I am not persuaded or dissuaded by a person’s outfit, hair, looks or anything visual. By seeing people based on what they say, which is indicative of what’s in their hearts and minds, I have the tremendous gift of seeing the real person, what makes them tick, and all that makes them who they are. I have the great joy of knowing firsthand the goodness inside of people, and that there are so very many truly beautiful people out there. 

So I really want people who struggle to know that there will be better times. You will experience good things again, even if you can’t imagine it right now. 

How do you support diversity in your communities?

I have served on the Board of Directors for the VABLN, now “Virginia Ability,” for almost 20 years. That’s the business-to-business organization of employers who believe in a diverse workforce and know the benefits of including individuals who have disabilities in their organizations.

My guide dog Cooper’s affection for the VCU Health representative at one of their events is actually how I ultimately learned of the VCU Health job in HR. Cooper fell in love with her and thousands of VCU Health teammates over the years. I am forever thankful for every one of those relationships he made, and I am most appreciative that he allowed me to enjoy and love his peeps. 

Cooper was also a wonderful ambassador and a big part of the work of VABLN/Virginia Ability. We worked hard and continue to work hard to dispel myths around disabilities, help employers connect and build strong employee engagement, remove the distance between job seekers, companies and resources, and help build inclusive cultures that are accessible for all employees. Additionally, I visit second graders each year and talk to them about Helen Keller, how Braille works, and how people who are blind do daily tasks, use a white cane and a guide dog. 

The best part of my time with these children is answering their magnificent questions, including how I know if the dog has to go to the bathroom, and how I “pick up their #2” when I can’t see it. You can tell they are all trying to figure out what someone’s life is like when their eyes don’t work, and it is wonderful to experience their focus, enthusiasm and questions. 

And I recently “retired” after 20 years as a Graduate Field Representative for Leader Dogs for the Blind, the school from which I received and trained with my three black Labradors — Baxter, Cooper and Wrangler. 

Wrangler joined me when Cooper retired in 2019 and is now four, with lots of energy and a tremendous affection for Cooper. My guide dogs have not only guided me to and through more than half of the states in our country, but their incredible souls, spirits and eyes have connected me to a world full of goodness, joy and awesome human beings.