Local News

DeKalb County area public health nurse remembered for ‘fighting tirelessly’ for others

Cindy Graves, nurse and public health official with the DeKalb County Health Department, dies at 61

DeKALB - Those who worked closely with Cindy Graves are remembering her as a devout community servant, a compassionate leader and a tireless advocate dedicated to public health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Graves, who died after a short illness Sunday at age 61 at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee Hospital, worked for decades in public health across DeKalb County. She was a 30-year nurse who held various roles including in the Kishwaukee Hospital emergency room. In 2012, Graves began a decade of work at the DeKalb County Health Department as the director of community health and prevention, health promotion and emergency preparedness until her death.

Colleagues and members of Graves’ church congregation reflected on her legacy this week, heralding her work and the passion they said she put behind it. Lisa Gonzalez, public health administrator for the county health department, called Graves instrumental in helping steer the county’s pandemic public health response.

“She fought tirelessly over the course of the pandemic in an effort to save lives and to be a resource to the community,” Gonzalez said. “She was a resource to so many of our community partners and prided herself on her responsiveness during even the most challenging of times.”

Throughout the months after the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in DeKalb County in December 2020, Gonzalez said Graves served as operations chief at all mass vaccination clinics held by the department, often stepping into extra roles when staffing was short.

“Cindy lead her team with dedication and purpose and always tried to be a voice for those most vulnerable in the community,” Gonzalez said. “She was passionate about protecting and advocating for the public’s health. She was [an] in the trenches type of leader, excelling at leading her team by example. I will remember Cindy for her fierce dedication to her staff, the community and to public health.”

Born in Carthage, Graves was a graduate of Sycamore High School. She went on to earn an elementary education degree from Northern Illinois University, became a registered nurse at Kishwaukee College, earned a Bachelor’s degree in nursing from NIU, and a master’s degree in health care administration from St. Francis College in Joliet.

She worked as a registered nurse at Kishwaukee for 30 years, rotating between pediatric and emergency room care. She worked as a house supervisor, an ER charge nurse, an EMS educator and EMS coordinator and emergency room director from 2005 to 2012.

Graves served as president of the Illinois Public Health Nurses Association until her death and on the Board of Directors of the Children’s Advocacy Center, part of the Family Service Agency.

In 2012, she began her tenure at the health department.

Dr. Michael Kulisz Jr., vice president and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine Kishwaukee and Valley West hospitals, remembers his time with Graves in the ER.

“As a nurse and as the director of the emergency department, Cindy always worked hand-in-hand with physicians,” he said. “Her collaborative approach inspired all of us to provide patients the highest quality of care.”

Kulisz said he counts Graves as a friend.

“She was an extremely caring individual and always respectful to the staff,” Kulisz said. “In return, the staff held her in high esteem.”

Outside of her career, Graves showed her service to the community through her congregation at Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore. She was a former council president at the church, said Senior Pastor Preston Fields and Jenny Ruff, vice president of the congregation council, in a joint statement.

“Cindy was a longtime, beloved member of the Salem Lutheran Church,” the pair said in statement. “She sang in the church choir and in Salem’s Christmas Cantata.”

They said she always encouraged people to be outward looking. Cindy served as assisting minister and as a member of the Global Missions Committee, part of a regional synod of Lutheran churches. During her missions, she traveled to a sister congregation in Arusha, Tanzania, where she worked to raise money for the Nursing School of Arusha.

“Above all, Cindy embodied this church’s motto of ‘living Christ’s love’ both at Salem and in the community,” the pair said in a statement.

It’s a testament to her work ethic, said Stacia Runge, communicable disease and immunizations coordinator with the health department. Runge said she thinks Graves found her calling in public health.

“She was a supportive leader and an advocate for her staff and the people of our community,” Runge said. “She had a great sense of humor and an infectious laugh. Over the last two years, we laughed and cried together often as we tried to maneuver through the [COVID-19] pandemic response.”

It’s that uplifting spirit that set her apart, said Holly Kuhn, family planning coordinator with the county health department.

“I will miss Cindy’s laugh and calmness even when days were tough,” Kuhn said. “She poured her heart and soul into helping others in need. Cindy was a one-of-a-kind gem, a true force, and will be greatly missed.”

Visitation for Graves will be on Friday from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Butala Funeral Home, 1405 DeKalb Ave., Sycamore and from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Saturday at Salem Lutheran Church in Sycamore. A memorial service will begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Salem Lutheran Church, 1145 DeKalb Ave. in Sycamore. A luncheon will follow the service at the church and a burial after at Fairview Park Cemetery in DeKalb.