New Lenox couple gives transformational gift to Silver Cross Hospital - again

Tom and Michele Vana give undisclosed amount in support of new NICU, which will be named for the couple’s triplets

Michele Vana of New Lenox first heard about Silver Cross Hospital’s plans to build a Level III, 24-bed neonatal intensive care until at a foundation meeting, she said.

Vana, a member of the Silver Cross Foundation’s volunteer board of directors, said she told her husband, Tom Vana, later that night, “Honey, I have a favor,” and was delighted to see that Tom “didn’t hesitate either” when Michele insisted, “We need to figure out how to do this.”

Tom and Michele Vana recently made an undisclosed transformational gift to support Silver Cross’s NICU, which is scheduled to open in winter 2022 and projected to cost $12.8 million, according to a news release from Silver Cross Hospital.

It’s not the first time the Vana family has blessed Silver Cross or even AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center for that matter.

In 2019, the couple honored the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the founding congregation of AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center, with a legacy wall prominently displayed within the medical center, according to a 2019 Herald-News story.

Tom and Michele Vana honored the Franciscan Sisters of the Sacred Heart, the founding congregation of AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center, with a legacy wall prominently displayed within the medical center.

Silver Cross in their lives

But in 2017, Tom and Michel donated an undisclosed but “substantial” amount to enhance and expand Silver Cross’ emergency services and paramedic-training program in honor of the Kurtz and Vana families’ relationship with Silver Cross for more than four decades, according to a 2017 Herald-News story.

In 1972, shortly after Tom’s parents, Karl and Marilyn Kurtz, opened the Kurtz Memorial Chapel, Karl bought a 1972 Cadillac ambulance and started the Kurtz Ambulance Service. For many years, Kurt and Marilyn answered calls and dispatched ambulances from their home 24 hours a day, the story said.

Kurt and Marilyn also sponsored many of Silver Cross’ charity events and made donations to the then Joliet-based hospital’s emergency room after the death of their son Joey, the story said.

Tom eventually took over the family business and even moved 129 patients at Silver Cross when the hospital moved to its new building in New Lenox as a courtesy, the story said.

From left: Julia Zingaila, Matthew Vana, Marilyn Kurtz, Michele Vana, Tom Vana, Amy Vana and Mitchell Cunningham.

In 1987, Tom met Michele in Silver Cross’s emergency department at Silver Cross where Michele worked as a nurse, she said. Tom worked as a paramedic for Kurtz Ambulance Service and as a funeral director for Kurtz Memorial Chapel, according to a news release from Silver Cross.

Michele and Tom married in 1990 and immediately wanted to start a family. But Michele was a little bit older bride,” she said and “things weren’t working out.”

“We did about four years of fertility treatments and were told we’d probably never have kids,” Michele said. “And then by the gift of medicine and prayers, we were abundantly blessed.”

And this is where Michele’s inspiration for supporting Silver Cross’ NICU begins.

Childerguild President Pam Resutko (left) presented Silver Cross Hospital President & CEO Ruth Colby with a check for $350,000 on Feb. 19 to fund help fund women and children services including Will County’s first neonatal intensive care unit.

At six weeks gestation, Michele learned she was carrying triplets and their hearts were beating one week later. All through her weekly visits, Michele heard the mantra, “Don’t count on anything.” “Things happen.” “You’re high risk.”

Michele said the goal of her health care team was to tightly manage the pregnancy so that delivery was planned at the optimal time with one doctor and nursing team for each baby. Michele was instructed to call her doctor if anything unusual occurred.

“If we were in an emergency situation, we might not get that,” Michele said. “That would not be ideal.”

The emergency situation no one wanted

But one night at 27 weeks gestation, one of the triplets’ amniotic sac ruptured. So Michele called her doctor and then Michele and Tom drove to Chicago in the middle of the night, fully expecting reassurance and a trip back home, she said.

Instead, Michele heard, “You have to stay in the hospital now until you deliver the babies.” Still trusting in medicine and prayer, Michele settled in for a stay. She took medication to postpone a preterm birth (which caused her blood pressure to drop, she said) and steroids to speed up the triplets’ lung development.

“I never got scared until the fourth day,” Michele said.

On day four, Michele went into labor. Michele said she panicked when the doctor told her, “We’re going to take the babies now.”

Michele said she responded with a firm, “No.” She wanted to explore other options – and learned she was out of options.

“So we went to the OR and delivered the babies that night,” Michele said, adding she still trusted medicine and prayer. “I thought, ‘God would not put us through all this just to take them away.”

Amy, Jay and Matthew Vana were born Oct. 10, 1995. They weighed less than 2 pounds each, the release said. Michele said the babies all cried right away and initially did well.

“None of them needed to be intubated,” Michele said. “But eventually they all ended up there. They would get better and then they would have setbacks.”

Michele was again reminded not to “count on anything” and that “things happen.”

She received a photo of her babies and was wheeled to the NICU later that day to see the triplets.

“I stayed in the hospital 72 hours and then I had to leave,” Michele said. “Though that was hard, leaving them there.”

Challenges of those early weeks

During the weeks the triplets stayed in the hospital, either Michele or Tom was there, although once some of the babies were discharged, that person was most often Tom, Michele said.

Amy came home when she was about 7 weeks old and then Jay and finally Matthew, who had caught respiratory syncytial virus. His condition was “touch and go” for a while and wound up two weeks developmentally behind his siblings, Michele said.

“He basically stopped growing during the two weeks he was sick just to survive,” Michele said.

But initially, getting back and forth to Chicago daily was more than the drive and the expense of the drive. Michele was recovering from a Cesarean section, so she was not allowed to drive; someone else must drive her, she said.

And even when Michele was recovered enough to drive, she often drove alone and not in the safest of neighborhoods, she said, let alone a treacherous snowstorm, which she did once, Michele.

Then when the babies started coming home, someone also needed to stay with them, she said. Again, this was not as easy as it sounds.

“They came home with heart monitors and breathing treatments and lots of medication,” Michele said.

‘A gift to the community’

For all these reasons and more, the idea of having a NICU close to home in Will County “just tugged on my heartstrings” and will be “such a gift to the community,” Michele said.

A news release from Silver Cross said its NICU will be modeled after the NICU at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and will be named the Amy, Matthew and Jay Vana Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Features include “a quiet environment for sleep and recovery,” a family lounge, a place for parents to sleep the night before their baby is discharged and space for breastfeeding and for parents to “practice skin-to-skin bonding, and be intimately involved in their baby’s care,” a news release from Silver Cross said.

A team of “highly skilled” neonatologists, neonatal nurses, therapists will provide round-the-clock care and this team will have immediate access to pediatric medical and surgical subspecialists at Lurie Children’s Hospital, the release also said.

Today, Amy Vana of Frankfort is engaged to Mitchell Cunningham from Mokena. Matthew Vana of Frankfort and his girlfriend Morgan McCarey are expecting their first child around the time Silver Cross’ NICU is due to open, Michele said.

Jay died in Silver Cross’ emergency department in 2012 after he was injured in a car crash where he was the passenger, Michele said. So although nothing in life is still ever certain, Michele is, nevertheless, absolutely certain about one thing regarding her children.

“They’re good people,” Michele said.