Constable: It's her job to tell people they have COVID-19, which elicits tears and fears

  • Making dozens of calls a day to people who have tested positive for COVID 19, hotline operator Elizabeth Thorn of the NorthShore University HealthSystem has dealt with shock and fear. But most people also want to know how they can protect others.

    Making dozens of calls a day to people who have tested positive for COVID 19, hotline operator Elizabeth Thorn of the NorthShore University HealthSystem has dealt with shock and fear. But most people also want to know how they can protect others. COURTESY OF JON HILLENBRAND, NORTHSHORE UNIVERSITY HEALTHSYSTEM

 
 
Updated 5/21/2020 9:52 AM

Almost everybody who gets a phone call from Elizabeth Thorn of the NorthShore University HealthSystem's COVID-19 hotline has the same initial reaction.

"A sharp intake of breath," the 36-year-old Lincolnshire woman says of the response when she introduces herself and explains why she is calling. What Thorn usually says next elicits a greater response.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You have tested positive for COVID-19, so you do have the virus," says Thorn, a former physical therapist and care transformation manager who is trained to handle whatever happens next.

"Many are shocked. Some are in tears. Some are devastated," Thorn says. "I've done thousands of calls. Each phone call is as unique as the person on the other line."

Part of her job is to calmly explain what to do. Sometimes people are so upset, they say, "I just need a minute. Can I call you back?'" Thorn says. "People do seem to think this is a death sentence. They ask, 'Am I going to die?' 'Should I go to the hospital right now?'"

Most people who test positive aren't going to die and don't even need to go to the hospital. But there have been a couple of times when Thorn has needed to call 911 on behalf of the person she called. "They're gasping for air, or don't seem like they're doing well," Thorn says.

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She remembers telling one person that her test had come back positive, and the woman simply said, "My father died last night."

Thorn had to break the news to one man in his 80s whose wife already was in the hospital being treated for COVID-19. "He was as gracious as he could be," Thorn says. "I was more upset than he was."

Many of the people get tested because some relative, co-worker or friend has tested positive or is suffering from COVID-19 symptoms. "A fair amount of people (who test positive) do not have symptoms," Thorn says.

The infection control triage line at (847) 570-2002 concentrates on people who have taken a COVID-19 test. The (847) HEALTH9 (432-5849) number is for people with more general questions.

"Some people can be a little flippant," Thorn says about those who don't believe they tested positive for the virus and balk at taking precautions. She has made calls about positive COVID-19 results on behalf of patients in all walks of life, from infants to people in their 90s.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's definitely an equal-opportunity virus -- all ages, backgrounds, everybody," Thorn says. She'll handle 40 to 50 calls a day, with some lasting less than a minute and others taking 25 minutes.

"It's really listening to their stories and going through the resources to figure things out," Thorn says. She's broken the news to people at home, in their cars, in the middle of shopping trips and at work.

"OK, as soon as we're done with this call, please find your manager and let them know you need to go home," Thorn tells those at work. "You've tested positive."

Thorn says people generally "get it" and want to know how they can keep from spreading the virus to anyone else.

"I really have to applaud people's sense of duty," Thorn says. "They ask, 'How do I help protect others?'"

With her wife, Denise, and their three young sons at home, Thorn shares those concerns. "Their last day of school was my first day on the triage line," Thorn says of the boys, ages 2 to 5. While the three or four hotline operators are spaced apart and "wash our hands vigorously," Thorn still cleans her phone, changes her clothes and takes a shower before she greets her family.

She usually doesn't find out how things turn out for those people she calls. But every once in a while she'll get a return call that brightens her day.

"They call us back," Thorn says, "and say, 'Hey, I'm better.'"

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