Finding family in unexpected places

April 27, 2023 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council of Edward-Elmhurst Health: We are DRIVEN to create a culture in which all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, physical abilities and socio-economic backgrounds can meet, share, learn and flourish in an accepting environment. By creating platforms and opportunities that allow us to come together, we can begin to know and understand each other. And through better understanding, we can effectively meet the needs of our diverse patients and deliver on our mission.

Rachel Nichols’ parents were addicted to drugs for most of her childhood, if not most of her life.

While growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Nichols and her younger sister survived on public assistance. When she was in fifth grade, her parents went to prison for several years.

“They were arrested, and the story appeared on the front page of the local newspaper,” Nichols says. “There was a lot of neglect. They weren’t really present. They struggled with untreated mental illness, which can lead to addiction. I definitely didn’t have parents who were supportive or nurturing.”

She and her sister lived with their grandparents until her parents were released. The experience set her apart from her peers. She ultimately moved a number of times and had to rely on the generosity of others for some of her most basic needs, like rides to school. Nichols had to figure things out for herself from a young age.

As Nichols found her way, she also found “adopted” parents -- families of her friends and other adults in her life to whom she grew close. In high school, she realized she wouldn’t have much help pursuing secondary education. Determined to earn a degree, she joined the Air Force.

“I thought I was going to do my six-year tour as a way to go to college and then be done,” Nichols says. “But once I joined, there was always something that kept me in. It was a great mechanism for me to learn how to do things I didn’t have parents to teach me – taxes, interviews, resumes.

“There’s a network and a built-in family environment. You become really close,” Nichols says.

While in the military, Nichols became a dental assistant, finished her bachelor's degree, and earned a PhD in immunology from Rush University Medical Center. During her time in graduate school, she discovered her passion for law. Still in the military, Nichols attended law school and upon graduation was commissioned as a U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer.

And through it all, Nichols found family.

The Air Force became a significant part of her identity, and she continues to serve as a Staff Judge Advocate in the Reserve. In 2019, she was hired as in-house counsel for Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Now a mom of two, Nichols says she appreciates that family members aren’t always flesh and blood.

“When we spend every day working alongside each other, we become a different type of family. Edward-Elmhurst Health has that family-supported culture, which is one of the things I love about the organization so much.

“I figured out how to create family. I know what it’s like to not have it,” she says.

Along with gaining supportive connections at EEH, Nichols emphasizes that she has learned it’s important to serve others as well.

“It’s easy to think about service in the context of our jobs. But we also have an opportunity to serve each other in a deeper, more meaningful way when we take the time to understand each other’s lives, appreciate one another’s gifts, and demonstrate that we value each other’s health and loved ones. When we serve each other, we prioritize integrity and compassion.

“I don’t see my story as what I’ve overcome, because it would be selfish and shortsighted to claim I did it alone,” Nichols says. “There have been people in my life who have supported me, such as my grandparents, work moms and dads, and work sisters. I believe that we have a responsibility to support each other. As human beings, we are at our best when we serve one another.”

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