Elsy Mecklembourg doesn’t know how to slow down. At an age when most people are considering retirement plans, Mecklembourg, 63, is finishing up the coursework for her doctorate in medical education at Columbia University and running her own nonprofit foundation.
The longtime Elmont resident, who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was one of three selected for a Grace LeGendre Foundation Fellowship, which she received in Albany in May. Hardly had she received the award than she was off to Haiti to help coordinate medical relief and education in the island nation still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, which devastated the country in 2016.
The $2,000 LeGendre grants are given annually to women who are pursuing graduate degrees; have demonstrated both scholastic ability and financial need; and expect to complete their degrees no later than two years after receiving their fellowships.
Mecklembourg received her master’s degree from Columbia’s Teacher’s College and had always intended to continue her education. But “my husband became ill with cancer, and I had to take care of him,” she said. When he died 17 years ago, the mother of two became her family’s only support.
“My oldest son tells me to slow down,” she said, laughing. “But my youngest encourages me to keep going.” Both are sources of strength and support, she said.
Mecklembourg said she has already accumulated more than $80,000 in student loans, adding that some have questioned her decision to attend an Ivy League school. “I know I’m getting the best education at Columbia,” she said. She added that she was able to apply some 40 credits from her master’s degree toward her doctorate, which would not have been possible elsewhere.
The struggle to find scholarship money “is like having two jobs,” she said. “Besides working part-time and going to school, I have to find a way to raise the money for tuition. But I always wanted to do this, and I think it’s important for everyone to have a goal, to have a dream.”
Mecklembourg is about to begin work on her dissertation, which she hopes will address the different issues faced by breast cancer survivors in the immigrant and African-American communities.
“The communities have much different attitudes about health care,” Mecklembourg said. “They may be very similar ethnically or in terms of socio-economic indicators, but they are quite different culturally.
According to Mecklembourg, immigrants from Caribbean nations are likely to want to return to their native countries when faced with catastrophic health crises. “Many immigrants won’t go to the doctor unless they’re dying,” Mecklembourg said. They are more comfortable with the traditional healers in traditions such as Santeria or Voodoo, she said.
Health care can also be complicated by cultural norms. “Many people in the immigrant communities are uncomfortable touching themselves,” she said, which rules out everyday diagnostics, such as checking their breasts for lumps. “Along with their misunderstanding of the illness itself, they have an all-encompassing fear of the health care system, of doctors, of medications.”
As far as her post-doctoral future is concerned, Mecklembourg doesn’t expect to slow down any time soon. In addition to her foundation work, she hopes to teach at the university level. She does expect to catch up on her rest. Pondering the notion of a good night’s sleep, she couldn’t contain her enthusiasm. “Seven hours of sleep? Oh, that would be marvelous!”