OutbreakCoronavirus, COVID-19 and Chicago

This Story Isn't About COVID-19. It's About Heroes

By Alex Fashandi |  @RedLineProject | Posted: Friday, Dec. 18, 2020

nurses photo

Left to right: Jennifer Dienberg, Christine Frenn and Jeffrey Draganowski. The nurses of unit 3N in Glenbrook
Hospital are a close-knit group that enjoys a selfie or two at work. (Photos courtesy Christine Frenn)

Many healthcare workers are feeling the anxiety of a prolonged viral pandemic. It’s the anxiety of catching and/or spreading COVID to a loved one, as well as the anxiety of COVID being a constant presence in their lives. 

Jennifer Dienberg, a nurse at Glenbrook Hospital, described her job since March as  “you go to work and it’s all COVID. You come home and it’s COVID on the news. You talk to a friend and all they want to know is ‘How is the hospital? What are things like over there?’ ”

While putting on a brave face at work, she said she has “literally shaken the entire way to my car [after work].”

The latest research released from the British Medical Journal showed that COVID-19 is putting healthcare workers at greater risk of moral injury -- a term used in the military to describe psychological distress -- and mental health problems.

This stress is not lost on frontline healthcare workers here in Chicago. Here are their stories … 

Read more: This article examines the work and background of a few individuals who are at the front lines of the COVID pandemic. To read the full profile for each, download the mobile web app here.

Jennifer Dienberg

Dienberg photo

Jennifer Dienberg, has been in healthcare since 2014. She always knew she wanted to get into healthcare since graduating from high school in Downers Grove. At first, she studied exercise physiology before moving into nursing after discovering a passion for helping people who are vulnerable and in desperate need of help.

Dienberg said she sees a variety of conditions in her day-to-day work life; from chest pains to GI abnormalities. Her experience has helped her navigate the ins and outs of COVID care. She has to both educate the patient and provide emotional support as they progress down their path of treatment. Dienberg recalled one patient in particular who was recovering nicely from COVID but began suffering from an anxiety attack and suddenly felt like he couldn’t breath.

“We have to do this with some patients, we have to turn off their oxygen and then come back later and tell them,” she said.

Dienberg did this and when the man realized his shortness of breath was all in his head he began to cry.

As he tried to apologize, Dienberg explained that she understood his behavior because COVID is so different in how it presents from person to person.

Audio: Jennifer Dienberg talks about treating COVID-19 patients 

Dan Van Dyke
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Dan Van Dyke, MSN, found a passion for nursing as a hospital corpsman in Jacksonville, Florida,
in 1998. At that time, he had already been in the Navy for five years. He made his way to Chicago after retiring from the Navy and worked as a patient care technician (PCT), first at Skokie Hospital and then later at Glenbrook Hospital, where he has been employed for the last 16 years.

After graduating from nursing school in 2006, he’s gradually worked his way up to become a clinical nurse manager of Glenbrook.

Van Dyke’s responsibilities include the care and oversight of about 48 staff members and a maximum of 24 patients. Van Dyke said that staffing is the hardest part of the job.

“Staffing can consume all of you if you let it,” Van Dyke said.

“I’m flexible, I have PCTs that are in school, they can only work certain days, and I work around that. Especially nowadays…everyone wants a work-life balance.” The importance of a work-life balance has been spelled out in research from the Harvard Business School which says that $125 billion to $190 billion in additional expenditures is spent each year on healthcare costs due to workplace stress.

Audio: Dan Van Dyke tells his story 

Christine Frenn

Frenn photo

Christine Frenn has been in healthcare for 12 years. She grew up with her dad being sick. While she was still at a tender young age, her father had his first of five heart attacks. She always spent
a lot of time at the bedside with him especially after he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

She always knew she wanted to be in healthcare but the time spent with her father is what really cemented her destiny to become a nurse.

“Originally, I wanted to be a pediatrician but I love kids too much to watch them suffer,” Frenn said.

Some of the suffering she went through taking care of her sick father both soured her attitude toward a career in healthcare and inspired it. Her father’s experience in the hospital lacked the care and humanity she believes is necessary in healthcare.

“Everyone deserves to have someone there for them to do things they may not be able to do at that time,” she said.

Frenn recalled an anxiety-inducing moment at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. During this time in early March, safety guidelines for hospital workers were changing everyday and while Frenn was caring for her first COVID positive patient she began to worry about what would happen if she were to contract COVID. Her primary worry was of her father who was in the middle of a 30-day stay at the hospital recovering from several complications and an intense surgery.

“I remember feeling like my heart was going to come out of my chest because, ‘Oh my god, if I get this virus, I still have to take care of my dad and if he gets it, he’s not going to make it,’ ” she said.

Jeffrey Draganowski

Draganowski photo

Jeffrey Draganowski has only become a nurse in recent years. His cousin, Taylor, spent a lot of time in the hospital after she suffered a traumatic brain injury at age 5. Draganowski spent a considerable amount of time visiting her in the hospital which is when he first started to realize he wanted a job where he could help people.

COVID hit just as Draganowski was finally getting comfortable with the roles and responsibilities of being a nurse. The sudden shift into a whole new environment threatened to ruin his newfound confidence. “I felt like they had just said, ‘OK, you’re going to a different floor of the hospital, everything is different, nobody really knows what’s going on, and everything is chaos.’ That was very hard for me as a new nurse.”

To make things worse, the new COVID-only unit that Draganowski was sent to wasn’t fully ready. His unit didn’t have a coordinator, their pagers weren’t working, and health and safety protocols
for engaging with COVID positive patients were changing everyday.

Before COVID-19, Draganowski was more than happy to check in on his patients quite frequently. Now, just the thought of going into a patient’s room fills him with anxieties and worries about spreading the virus to those close to him.

“I’m trying to not go in rooms but then I feel bad because I want to help the patient and I want to be in there all the time giving them care,” he said.

Working in a pandemic 

Van Dyke and the other healthcare workers interviewed praised NorthShore University Health Systems, the owners of Glenbrook Hospital, for its support during the first wave of the pandemic.

“Early on things were changing daily,” Van Dyke said.

Luckily, proper PPE was secured for every healthcare worker under Van Dyke’s wing. “The quality has been a little sketchy at times,” Dienberg said jokingly.

The staff also never had to worry about facing a critical number of patients. The American Nurses Association mandates that the appropriate registered nurse-to-patient ratio for a medical/surgical unit for the one like Van Dyke manages is 1:5. During the first wave of the pandemic, this standard was raised to 1:3 because of the high amount of care and time needed for each COVID patient. This was only achievable due to lockdown being enforced as well as NorthShore temporarily closing Skokie hospital in order to be able to transfer staff from that hospital to Glenbrook.

This doesn’t appear to be the case in the second wave of COVID. Now the unit is at a ratio of 1:5 with all cases being high-maintenance COVID positive. Constantly putting on gowns and removing them is a seemingly small inconvenience that adds up quickly over time.

“We’ve just always had this mindset of ‘if the bed alarm goes off, just run in and make sure the patient is safe’ and now from the doorway you’re yelling at someone to get back in bed while you’re trying to scramble and get your gown on,” Dienberg said.

Additionally, frontline healthcare workers talk of a growing sense of “COVID fatigue.” The U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams told NPR that people aren’t taking the steps necessary to mitigate the virus seriously anymore. This is a leading force in the second wave’s infectivity, The New York Times reported.

The hospital offered chaplains to come talk to staff and a relaxation room, which Draganwski said was rarely, if ever, used because, “who has time to just drop all their patients to go relax a little?”

Frenn remembered how her fear about the virus led her to reestablish her faith. “I would do prayer circles with the staff. For some people it really helped just to hear a 30 second prayer…We all went into nursing to care for people and now with this pandemic we’re still caring for them but we’re all so scared.”

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