The Spirit of Murfreesboro
Dr. Liz Rhea
By Christy Howard Womack
Dr. Liz Rhea knew from an early age what it meant to live a life of service. “My mother was driving people to the doctor when she was 90,” recalls Liz. “She would give you her last penny.”
The oldest of six children, Liz grew up in Eagleville of modest means. Money for college was not an option for the family, and scholarships were not available at that time. But with her characteristic grit and persistence, Liz worked her way through school and earned an undergraduate degree from what is now Middle Tennessee State University. A true pace setter, Liz then became one of only two women in medical school at the University of Tennessee Memphis.
It was at UT that she met the love of her life, Creighton Rhea, a radiology professor at UT Medical School while Liz was a resident in radiology. Subsequently they came back to Rutherford County to live because Middle Tennessee was home to Liz and she had family in the area. Creighton worked at Murfreesboro Medical Clinic and Rutherford Hospital and Liz assisted him in the practice of radiology in several small Middle Tennessee towns. They were both associated with the VA Hospital. They later returned to Houston where Liz completed her education at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston to learn skills like mammography and ultrasound that had not been available when she was originally a resident in training. Subsequently Liz became Chief of Ultrasound and Mammography at the Houston VA Hospital and she was assistant professor of radiology at Baylor College of Medicine. She was recruited to go to El Paso, Texas and became Chief of Ultrasound and Mammography at William Beaumont Medical Center from which she retired. When they decided to retire the couple wanted to return to Middle Tennessee. With the encouragement of her husband, they began volunteering at local organizations.
“My husband lived through me during that time and he loved to drive. He would wake up in the morning and ask ‘what’s our schedule’ and then drive me from meeting to meeting. It made it easy to get involved. At first, I saw all the need in the world and thought ‘one person can’t do much,’ but when I gave of my time, talent or treasure, I found such joy. And the more I gave, the more joy it brought,” says Liz. “I realized that one person might not be able to do a lot, but collectively a lot of people can be a big difference in the world.”
As her husband’s health declined, Liz also faced health challenges. A three-time cancer survivor as well as a heart attack survivor, Liz was told on two occasions that she had very little time left and to get her affairs in order. That grit and determination surfaced again and Liz pursued traditional as well as experimental treatments in order to regain her health.
“I am so grateful to be alive,” said Liz. “I know that every day is a gift. It is through divine intervention that I am here on this earth and I praise God every day and try to pack a little more into each day that He gives me.”
Giving is almost an addiction to Liz. She has served on 28 boards of nonprofits in Rutherford County, 24 of them at one time, encouraging them to be good stewards of the money they raise. “They must be good stewards, to watch the expenses of the fundraisers, to make sure that those expenses don’t exceed 20% of revenue. They ideally need to be 14-15% of the revenue.” She knows, perhaps better than anyone else, what it takes to run a successful fundraising campaign.
Her primary causes are the Saint Thomas Rutherford Hospital (“they saved my life”), and MTSU (“to instill in students a love of giving back”), but there are so many more boards who have benefited from her wisdom, her natural leadership abilities, her hard work, and her financial support.
And that doesn’t even account for the many Murfreesboro citizens who are inspired, encouraged and solicited by Rhea to give of their time, talents and treasure. “I’m always amazed when people say that,” says Liz. “I hope that is my greatest gift – to have been an inspiration. If people start off just doing a little bit, they will find what happiness giving brings.”
Liz’s motto is simple. “Every day is a gift. Do not miss God’s matchless gift to us. Today! You can make a difference. There is one other principle if you want your life to count. Find a need and fill it! Live a life of service to others and God one day at a time. Today!”
Liz’s grace and generosity of spirit radiate from her, even in the simplest moments. Each waiter in the dining room at Adams Place and each young person she runs across benefits from her natural curiosity of their situation and her desire to encourage them in their education and to assist them in their career path. “I really think that’s more important than anything else,” says Liz. “To open the door for people to a better life, to make recommendations or give advice, that brings me so much joy.”
Her bucket list includes a litany of causes she’d like to see come to life in the time she has left. “I think we need to grow the hospital,” she says. “At MTSU we got our science building, but now we also need an indoor practice facility for football, and it’s time to add on to the Discovery House.” Not one to ever be satisfied, Liz pushes for more in all the organizations she serves.
Her generous spirit is contagious and it’s hard to estimate the impact she’s had on the Murfreesboro community. Everywhere there are hard-working volunteers who credit Liz with inspiring them to do more. And together, this one little person, joined with all those other individuals, have changed the lives of many in Murfreesboro. All because someone first said “yes” to answer their call.