'We'll get through this together': DeKalb County nurses say they feel prepared despite COVID-19 surge

DeKalb County nurses feeling prepared despite COVID-19 surge

Laura Dicanio, a registered nurse at Northwestern Medicine Valley West Hospital, said big changes are happening in how the hospital is treating COVID-19 patients with the current surge in cases in the area.

Dicanio said she felt the hospital was pretty prepared for the expected surge of COVID-19 cases last spring, but the surge never truly happened to Valley West. She said Valley West sent a majority of its COVID-19 patients to sister hospitals, such as Delnor in Kane County and Kishwaukee in DeKalb. She said Valley West mostly took short-term rehab COVID-19 patients at that time.

Now, the hospital is taking more of the patients who would have otherwise been transferred to other hospitals – and it’s getting busier, Dicanio said. However, she said she doesn’t believe the hospital is at capacity and said managers have a surge plan in place.

“Anything that’s going to be a huge change and with this kind of influx of patients is going to be stressful on everyone,” Dicanio said. “So you kind of just learn to ask for help.”

Dicanio's comments come after Northwestern Medicine announced last week it would reduce nonemergency surgeries and procedures requiring in-patient stays to preserve bed capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and diminishing hospital space statewide.

As of Sunday, 24% of medical and surgical beds and 23% of intensive care beds were available statewide, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data. As of Friday, 35.5% of ICU beds were available in DeKalb County, per IDPH data.

DeKalb County’s health region, which includes Winnebago and west to Whiteside, saw a seven-day average of 282 COVID-19 hospital beds in use, according to IDPH.

Mary Kohler, a registered nurse at Kishwaukee Hospital, said she also doesn’t believe that the hospital is at capacity currently and that health care workers feel more prepared and educated about the coronavirus than last spring. She said there’s a wider array of symptoms to be aware of now and her team remains extra supportive and flexible in working through the pandemic.

“We’ve definitely learned in the hallway to smile with your eyes and to make sure to check on each other,” Kohler said. “But I feel like we’re holding up really well. I’m very impressed with the way Kish has been handling this.”

According to Illinois health care report card data, Kishwaukee Hospital has 98 total beds, including 12 ICU beds, and Valley West Hospital has 25 total beds, including four ICU beds. Northwestern Medicine officials previously have said entire intensive care units, which includes separated patient rooms with one bed in each, at Northwestern Medicine hospitals had been converted to negative air pressure rooms, which helps if a COVID-19 patient is hospitalized and needs to be intubated or placed on a ventilator to help them breathe.

Kim Waterman, spokeswoman for Northwestern Medicine, wrote in a Nov. 18 email that the health care network is not releasing the exact number of beds available at Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals “because we have surge plans that will allow us to expand and contract beds as needed.”

Dicanio said she has been with the hospital for about a year and a half, but has been a nurse for more than a decade. Although she said her colleagues support one another in caring for patients, the level of stress is high for everyone right now, regardless of how big or small the hospital is.

“This is just something that none of us have ever experienced before,” Dicanio said.

Kohler said there definitely seems to be some fatigue among health care workers, although she reiterated how well she feels staff has been working together, from what she personally has experienced.

“But with that being said, yes, it’s definitely difficult,” Kohler said. “But we’ll get through this together.”

Dicanio said the nice thing about Valley West being a smaller and single-level hospital building is that it’s easier to get creative in keeping patient morale up, especially with no in-person visitors allowed in the hospital currently. She said visitors have come up to ground level hospital room windows and would talk through phones or hold up signs or grandchildren for patients from outside.

“That has really helped patients a lot, just to be able to physically see their family,” Dicanio said.

Dicanio said it’s important now more than ever for health care workers to have to leave work at work, even if it means giving her family at home a heads up that she needs some time to herself once she gets back from work. Dicanio copes by doing yardwork, spending time with her family and talking walks with the family dog.

Both nurses are urging people to wear masks, wash their hands, keep their distance and to continue being responsible in staying away from others if they’re feeling sick.

“Just be patient with the way things are right now,” Dicanio said. “I know it’s hard. It’s a hard time for everyone. ... Just know that we’ll get through it. It’s going to take time; we have to go through the hard patches first and then we’ll come out stronger in the end.”

Katie Finlon

Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.