Retired health workers cautiously stepping up to help with COVID-19 response
After 43 years as a family physician in Mount Prospect, Dr. John Sage decided to hang up his stethoscope more than a year ago for a quiet life in retirement.
But even before Gov. J.B. Pritzker pleaded for retired health care workers to "join the fight against COVID-19," Sage offered his services to Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, where he served five years toward the end of his career providing palliative care to patients with serious illnesses.
In all his years as a doctor, Sage said, he never experienced a crisis like the coronavirus outbreak raging in Illinois.
"It has to concern us all very much," said Sage, who now lives in Evanston. "I think that retired physicians have the knowledge and experience and the desire to be involved."
Skilled, still mentally sharp and eager to serve, many retired doctors and nurses are reaching out to heed the governor's call for help. Yet, with the shortage of protective gear -- masks, gloves, gowns -- even for front-line health workers, and fears about their own mortality being part of a high-risk age group, many retirees, like Sage, say they are willing to triage patients but not provide direct patient care.
"I'm not going to go anywhere where they don't have enough protection for me," said Kathleen Richmond, 74, of Oak Forest, who was an emergency room nurse for much of her 50-year career. "I could assess people. I could do the basics."
Nurses who have been out of nursing for a couple of years also don't have the necessary skillset to work newer equipment and would need training, she said.
As the coronavirus outbreak strains hospital health systems, many states are leaning on retirees to help ease the load where they can.
Illinois is expediting licensing and waiving fees to reintegrate retired doctors, nurses, physician assistants and respiratory care therapists. Workers whose licenses expire soon will be automatically extended through September.
"There are many roles a retired nurse can fill to support nurses working stretcher-side," said Mike Hastings, president of the Schaumburg-based Emergency Nurses Association.
Hastings urged retired nurses, "if they're able and willing, to reach out to their local hospitals to see what they can do to help during this critical time."
Several recently retired family doctors with active licenses from throughout the state have reached out to volunteer directly with local medical practices and hospitals within their communities, said Ginnie Flynn, spokeswoman for the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians in Bolingbrook.
"Basically, they are older, so (in the) high-risk category to do in-person care, but are very much able and willing to do the virtual visits and staff the hotline calls," Flynn said in an emailed statement.
Despite retirees offering their services, some hospital systems are relying on their existing health workers for now.
"At this time, we have determined our labor pool is robust and we are not using retired medical personnel simply for their own safety, since they are generally in the higher risk group to be vulnerable to the virus," said Amy Jo Steinbruecker, spokeswoman for Northwest Community Healthcare.
Sage said he would rather not be on the front lines and instead can help provide triage services and diagnoses through telephone or video chats with patients.
"I'm 73 years old," he said. "You do not want me in the hospital setting. You do not want me in the emergency room because I am of the population that is at high risk of having very serious complications from this viral infection."
Sage said he cannot risk contracting the virus and spreading it to his wife -- a woman in her 60s -- and the mostly senior residents of his condo building.
For most people, the virus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
"It's scary to all of us. We are all at risk," Sage said.