5 questions with…retiring University Health Service Director Nell Davidson

Eleanor “Nell” Davidson came to Cleveland in 1983 as a nephrology fellow at University Hospitals, where she expected to spend the next three years honing her specialty in treating kidney disease.

But after working a few hours a week in Case Western Reserve’s University Health Service, she soon found an entirely new passion—caring for students—that she’d refine over the next three decades.

Davidson retired yesterday after 31 years as director of the University Health Service, where she followed the simple rule: “Create the care that you think should be available to patients.”

For Davidson, this was threefold:

  1. Give students the time and attention they need, rather than quickly diagnosing to move on to the next patient;
  2. Create an integrated model in which a student can find help “wherever they walk in for care;” and
  3. Take a comprehensive approach to health and wellness, treating both body and mind.

The holistic method she promoted among her 20 clinicians extended beyond diagnosis to treatment, ensuring that all university resources are tapped to help students.

“Maybe the answer to homesickness isn’t medical—maybe it’s to use the residence life staff to help someone through that transition,” said Davidson, who also touted a multidisciplinary, holistic approach as chair of the American College Health Association’s Continuing Education Program. “Maybe your resources are not pills or lab tests—they’re getting a student connected to the right resources on campus that can help them.”

Davidson’s work included everything from diagnosing common and exotic physical illnesses—including malaria and “Loa loa,” an illness related to a worm infection—to caring for students suffering from anxiety and depression.

Ten years ago, Davidson got Case Western Reserve involved as a “pioneer school” in the National College Depression Project, which led to health services conducting regular screenings for depression for all patients.

“It was a way to systematically find students in distress in places you didn’t expect to find them, and then follow them through to make sure they got the care they needed and the outcomes to stay in school,” Davidson explained. “We began to realize who exactly was coming here and what kinds of needs we can meet.”

The focus on mental health became her ultimate passion. She took additional training beyond her medical school education at University of Michigan to better understand the students and how to care for them, mentally and emotionally.

“What I’ve liked above everything else,” she said, “is getting to know these students, hearing what’s been going on with them and being able to figure out how to untangle it and help them get better.”

Join us in congratulating Davidson on her three-decade career at Case Western Reserve—and learn a bit more about her in this week’s five questions.

1. What’s your favorite place in Cleveland?

Severance Hall. My undergraduate major was music, and now I’m a subscriber to the Cleveland Orchestra. I go constantly to hear the concerts. That orchestra knocks my socks off. To live and work down the block from them is amazing.

2. If you could have any superpower, what would you pick?

My superpower would be to make anyone I met into my friend. My father could do this, and I admired that in him.

3. When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A musician. I almost went to conservatory, but I thought it was sort of a lonely life. Now, I sing in a chorus and it feels like a mindfulness activity: You go and you sing with these people and you create this music. You may be tired or grumpy and you don’t want to do it at the time, but once you start making music, it starts working on you—by the time you leave the rehearsal, you’re in a completely different mood. I find it astonishing.

4. Throughout all of your schooling, what was the most important lesson you ever learned?

I never knew who was going to be able to teach me something. Sometimes it was the professor, sometimes it was another student in the class, sometimes it was a secretary in the department, sometimes it was the guy who filed the X-rays. You never knew who was going to teach you something very important, so you had to learn to be alert. I wish I had understood that a littler sooner: to be alert to these other sources.

5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?

Because of who I got to meet day in and day out, it’s the students. They’re so incredibly exceptional, but they are not full of themselves. That is a remarkable combination. They are incredibly bright and talented.