4 suburban ICU nurses who help form the backbone of the coronavirus fight
Their patients can't see their faces, covered by masks and shields, hair nets and goggles, but they can hear the humanity in their voices.
Theresa Vasquez speaks in the calm, steady tone one might imagine of an overnight charge nurse.
Tamara Perille sounds like the radio companion Delilah, consoling patients through an almost unbearable separation from family.
Melissa Wilhelm has no weariness in her voice as she cares for the sickest of the sick and celebrates those who have survived.
These are the stories of the people behind layers of protective equipment: four intensive care unit nurses at suburban hospitals who form the backbone of the coronavirus fight.
Wilhelm will never forget the first time one of her COVID-19 patients came off a ventilator. The man began breathing on his own on his wife's birthday.
"When he was able to talk a little bit more coherently, I actually FaceTimed with her, and we together, him and I, sang happy birthday to her," said Wilhelm, a nurse at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.
The campus has devoted two medical surgical floors and two ICU units to COVID-19 patients. Three extubatons into the crisis, the ICU staff became so uplifted by the successes that they adopted their own theme song.
Every time the team extubates a patient or they've made enough progress to leave the ICU, Wilhelm and her co-workers gather outside the hospital room, clap, cheer and play Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'."
"We're still treating them like they're our moms and dads, our brothers or sisters," Wilhelm said. "We're not going to let them be alone."
The nurse at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights cannot hug her 21-year-old twins who are back home from college.
How do they cope with physical distancing? Her husband and their daughters usually have a surprise waiting for the Arlington Heights mom when she gets home from a 12-hour shift.
"Sometimes they dress up in funny little costumes, in colored wigs and blow bubbles, whatever they think is going to make me laugh for the day, streamers outside the door, balloons being blown up," she said. "And just simply knowing that they're there for me, that they've got my back at home, that to me is priceless."
There's been a slow but steady climb of COVID-19 cases, but hospital officials say they do not yet know the magnitude of the peak or how long it will last.
Through the uncertainty, nurses offer reassurance to each other, their patients and families barred from visiting their loved ones.
"I've always loved what I do," Perille said. "I've always loved being a nurse, and this has reaffirmed that we all have made the right choice."
Vasquez finds a quiet moment in her car to take a deep breath and summon her focus before every night shift at Central DuPage Hospital.
She oversees intensive care unit nurses and those from other departments who have volunteered for cross-training to support the ICU staff. They use iPads to set up video calls between patients and families, even if their loved one is on a ventilator and unable to speak, Vasquez said.
"They can at least tell them that they love them, and that they're thinking about them," she said.
Patients dying without family at their side is the worst tragedy of the crisis.
"I had a nurse, wasn't even assigned to that patient, but she knew that the person was not doing well and was probably in their last moments of their life," Vasquez said. "And she just voluntarily went in and sat with the patient during that time."
After leading the shift change in the morning, she goes for a run to try to separate her job from her life at home.
Her daughters, 2 and almost 1, are too young to understand the pandemic's toll, but her oldest knows the routine.
"She knows that Mommy's a nurse," she said.
Kelley has witnessed a lot of pain in her 16 years as a critical care nurse at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva.
What always seems to help, even in the subtlest ways, is the presence and touch of a loved one -- a comfort that has been stripped by the pandemic.
So Kelley spends a few extra minutes each day sitting and talking with her patients.
"I feel really blessed to be there with them in the good times and bad," she says.
An overwhelming feeling of joy emanates through her unit when a COVID-19 patient who has been sedated and on a ventilator for days unexpectedly wakes up, Kelley said.
Then there's the other side of the story, the moments of profound sadness, when someone who seemed to be recovering takes a sudden turn for the worse.
Kelley tries to set aside her own emotions and ignore her own fears. That's easier said than done.
"I go home, and I still think about the people there at work -- the nurses who are working, the patients who are really sick, the patients who I wonder if they're going to be there when I get back," Kelley said. "Unfortunately, I'm not able to turn that off."
But she does feel prepared. Before each shift, she and her co-workers form a "huddle" to discuss what the most critical patients need, what challenges lie ahead and how to best support each other.
"Going through this difficult time has actually made us feel strong and feel more like a family," Kelley said. "You have a feeling of being proud of what you do, not because of the recognition that you get, but proud that you actually know you are making a difference."
Nominate a nurse!In honor of National Nurses Week, May 6-12, the Daily Herald and College of DuPage would love to hear about a nurse who has made an impact on your life. To nominate someone, go to events.dailyherald.com.
We need the nurse's first and last name along with 150 words about your choice. Entries will be accepted until May 7.
From May 8 to 12, the community can vote for their favorite nurse, who will receive gift cards from local businesses including Lurvey's Garden Center, Perry Steakhouse and Deer Park Town Center.
There will be two winners. One will be selected by the College of DuPage. The second winner will be the nurse who receives the most votes. Winners will be announced by May 15.