In her final year in pursuit of a Miss West Virginia USA title, Lacy Russell has completed a journey of self-discovery and realization that will give her peace, contentment, and closure no matter what the result of the 2021 pageant.
But Russell, a nurse in the medical intensive care unit at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, is turning her personal quest into something more universal. This year, Russell says, she wants to use the pageant’s platform to embrace and represent her profession.
“I remember when I first started this, I just wanted to boost my confidence about my personal skills, my interview skills and get over my fear of public speaking,” Russell said. “It was all about trying to be the best version of myself, which was a good reason to compete and win.
“But over the past year I have figured out that this is so much bigger than me,” she continued, fighting back tears. “We’ve had such a hard year in the ICUs and the ICUs across the country and because of that we need to be represented on that stage. We need a symbol of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why it would mean the world to me to represent West Virginia and possibly Miss USA at the Miss Universe pageant.”
It's a lofty goal but certainly not out of reach. Although Russell is 27 and will be finished with Miss USA eligibility after this year, she has been first runner-up in each of the past two Miss West Virginia pageants. A veteran of seven pageants, including winner of last year’s Three Rivers Festival crown, Russell feels the experience she has gained in the past few years has made her both a stronger contestant and a stronger person.
The key to coming out on top, she says, is “probably just being myself, as cliché as that sounds. Every contestant will tell you if you’re yourself then you’ve done what you can to win the title.”
In an odd way, her nursing experience, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, has not only given her more determination to win but has also helped fuel her personal growth.
When the virus first started gaining traction in the U.S. in March of 2020, Russell was not convinced it would be as devastating as it turned out to be. The ICU beds at Ruby were not filled that spring as a few cases trickled in. Frontline workers were vigilant and prepared rather than exasperated and stretched to the limit as was the case in many larger cities. But Russell closely monitored the pandemic’s effects on the news and a grimmer reality began to set in.
“November and December hit and that’s when all heck broke loose,” Russell recalls. “Our entire unit was full of COVID patients ... they were so, so sick. I’ve seen more death in the past year than I had in my career as a whole, which is about six years. I never imagined it would get to be this bad, and that’s when I started to struggle too mentally – all of us did. We were all really, really struggling.”
It’s not hard to imagine. Frontline workers faced the virus with multiple challenges. They not only wanted to heal their patients but were also fearful of the constant exposure to the disease. Because of her age and her dedication to a healthy lifestyle, Russell was not as worried for herself as she was for her loved ones if she would happen to catch COVID-19. Also, visitors to the hospital were extremely limited to help stave off the spread, so nurses often found themselves as both care taker and proxy family member.
Russell reached a breaking point when a “special patient” succumbed to the disease and died this past winter.
“I had eight days off after that and I didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t have the energy to cope,” she recalled. “The gym is my coping mechanism and I didn’t have the energy to go to the gym. I just felt myself spiraling. My loved ones were saying, ‘You’re not yourself. There’s something wrong.’ “
The anguish and despair she felt after her patient’s death was not an uncommon condition in her profession and the pandemic served as a crucible for many nurses to second-guess their abilities and plunge into depression.
“As ICU nurses, we’re control freaks,” she said. “We really want to control everything about a situation. Whenever your patient declines clinically, it’s the hardest thing because you feel so helpless and you can’t do anything about it. I started taking it out on myself: ‘What could I do better? Why does this keep happening to my patients?’ It was so frustrating.”
Eventually, the frustration gave way to clarity. During her time off, Russell said she had an “ephiphany” that restored her confidence and happiness. Out of necessity to maintain a better state of mental health, she began to approach her role from a less emotional and more clinical perspective. The healing was further helped when vaccinations began proliferating in late 2020 and COVID-19 cases, along with fear, began to slowly dissipate. Russell has received both doses of the vaccine. A big part of her recovery, she says, was volunteering at Ohio County Health Department, giving vaccines to others.
“That was the most rewarding thing I think I could have done for myself,” she said.
Ironically, Russell had a similar, though less dramatic, collapse after her first foray into the pageant world.
In high school, she competed at a few local fair and festival pageants but always stumbled to answer questions on stage, even when they were provided to the contestants before the on-stage interview. After a handful of poor finishes, Russell decided to give up on pageants.
“I said, ‘this is not for me, I’m not going to do this. I admire those women but I’m never going to be one of those women.’ Now I look at myself and it’s like, ‘wow, I’ve come such a long way.’ ”
Russell got the pageant bug again while a student at Walsh University in Ohio, which coincided with her pursuit of a career in nursing. A first-generation college student and graduate, Russell felt she was a natural caregiver but, despite being a cum laude student at Walsh, didn’t have the patience to pursue a medical degree. Her commitment continued initially with the idea of becoming an emergency room nurse, then as an ICU nurse, despite warnings from friends and teachers that the time management skills necessary for such a position would be a daunting challenge.
She started in the MICU at Wheeling Hospital upon graduation in 2015. She switched to Ruby the next year to be part of a teaching hospital, a Level I trauma center, and to see a more diverse array of patients.
“It was very, very difficult at first because they do like people with experience to come into the ICU because they have more of a grasp on time management,” she said. “But I absolutely love it here. I fell into the right place. I love the critical care aspect of everything, I love the critical thinking of it. Every patient is a mystery, they’re so complex. They’re not just here for one thing they’ve got a lot of things going on. It teaches you to look at the whole picture instead of just one problem.”
Russell says she may eventually look into becoming a flight nurse or a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), but those are future aspirations. Right now, she’s nearing the end of what she calls a “chapter” in her life as a Miss WV contestant. The pageant is July 9-11 at West Virginia Wesleyan College. For ticket information, click here. To watch a live stream of the pageant, click here.
“I’m ready to be the next Miss West Virginia USA,” she said. “I’m ready to take that step and represent healthcare workers that fought COVID-19 on the front lines as a Miss USA. We need representation, no matter if it’s me or if it’s somebody else. It needs to happen.”