It was Adriana Grimaldi’s decision … her choice to transfer to the COVID-19 unit at Glenbrook Hospital, where Evanston-based NorthShore University HealthSystem cares for coronavirus patients.

Grimaldi has been a NorthShore nurse for five years, and a nurse on the COVID team since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. The 27-year-old has seen patients pass away. “We will hold their hands and talk to them so they don’t die alone,” she says.

And she has also seen patients survive after nearly not making it. “One patient called and said ‘I’m able to go home now,’” Grimaldi recalls. “He remembered all the nurses’ names. That had been such a horrible day but he completely turned it around.”

After Grimaldi volunteered for the COVID unit in March (she had been in the medical/surgical department), she was given a tour before the flood of patients began arriving. After seeing the negative pressure system, all of the oxygen equipment, and additional barriers put up for new nursing stations, her first reaction was “Oh my God, what did I sign up for?”

But the supervisor said, “When this is all over, you’ll be so proud that you helped people get through this.” And so Grimaldi stayed, and as a nurse, is glad she is on the COVID team. “This is why I did this in the first place,” she says of her career.

But it has been extremely challenging. Back in April, Grimaldi even came down with COVID herself. She’s not sure if she got it at work (despite PPE and other hospital health and safety measures), or perhaps from her father, who works as a pharmacist, who also contracted the illness. (He’s fine now).

Grimaldi’s case was not life-threatening, but it was painful, uncomfortable, and tiring. Even now, her sense of taste and smell have not totally returned. But she also says it has aided her in understanding what her patients are going through. “It’s helped me because I’m even more empathetic” towards those she’s treating.

The first COVID wave in the spring came with countless questions about dealing with a new illness. “At the beginning,” Grimaldi says, “it was a lot of ‘we’ll see what works.’”

“It’s so much better now,” with more understanding of what medications can help. But in another way it’s tougher, because, unlike in the spring, other non-COVID patients are still being cared for, so there are fewer doctors and nurses to transfer in for assistance with the virus.

Grimaldi works 12-hour shifts, although sometimes those shifts are extended. “There are days we don’t eat or drink,” she says. “I’m tired.”

But the emotional load is far heavier than the physical. Usually, Grimaldi says, a nurse can leave work “at the office.” But now, she says, “it’s getting to me.” With so many patients passing away, “I think about those people at home.”

“It’s horrible,” she adds. “You get close to the families,” who are unable to go to the hospital due to COVID safety precautions.

But there are also good times. When a patient is transferred from the step-down ICU where Grimaldi works (an intensity level below full Intensive Care Unit intubation, but higher than a standard medical unit) to a regular room, “we’ll line the hall and clap for them,” she says. And when a patient is discharged from the hospital, a song is played over the loudspeaker.

“We do try to celebrate the victories,” she says.

Grimaldi says the COVID team has formed a “special bond. Trauma brings you together” in trying to help patients through a crisis.

And that crisis is getting worse. As of this morning, NorthShore had 142 COVID-19 patients, including 20 in the ICU. On November 10, there were 109 total, with 10 in intensive care.

If there’s anything which angers Grimaldi about all of this, it’s how irresponsible some people are in the face of a pandemic. “You’re such a hero,” people say. “God bless you. And then they go out to a party or to a bar.”

“Don’t call me a hero,” she says. “Just wear a mask, social distance, you can hold off on parties or going to bars. It’s a no brainer. You need to do your part.”

Certainly Adriana Grimaldi is doing hers. She says “I would have regretted it if I didn’t say yes” to working in the COVID unit.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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