Resilient ICU nurses recognize the value of life with a baby boom

April 28, 2022 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health

When the world shut down in March 2020, intensive care unit (ICU) nurses found themselves in a new realm.

Only those who lived it truly understand what it was like to be so vulnerable, to drive on empty roads full of fear, to a hospital with few to no visitors and patients pouring in one after another, sick with a highly contagious virus about which very little was known.

Nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists lived side-by-side in a period of history in which the fragility of life was so apparent. Many walked away wondering, now what?

For several nurses in the Edward Hospital ICU, a baby boom was the answer.

Ravi Nemivant, M.D., medical director of the ICU, says, “Our team has gone through the wringer with the pandemic. Yet despite this, we see hope and dedication from many of our nurses. Recently, some of our nurses have delivered healthy babies. Despite all the tragedy they have seen, they still see value in bringing life into the world. I want to commend their willingness, after careful weighing of risks and benefits, to get vaccinated from COVID-19 as young women who are or were planning pregnancy to offer protection to themselves and their babies.”

Seven nurses in the ICU gave birth in 2021-22, all delivering at Edward Hospital. We talked to four of them so they could tell their story, in their words.

Please meet: Jayne Corrigan, RN, BSN, CCRN, who had a son in October 2019 and another in September 2021; Hannah Kernes, RN, BSN, who had a daughter in November 2021; Beth Wessels, RN, BSN, who had a daughter in March 2022 and Rachel Walker, RN, BSN, MSN, CCRN, who had a daughter in November 2021.

ICU nurses and their babies

Pictured above from left to right: Jayne Corrigan with her sons, Brayden and Nolan (newborn), Hannah Kernes and her daughter, Kennedy; Beth Wessels and her daughter, Layla; Rachel Walker and her daughter, Ryan.

When you think about life as a nurse before March 2020, what do you miss or remember?

Corrigan: I remember feeling like I was getting close to the end of my career as an ICU nurse. I was in school and deciding between family nurse practitioner and acute care nurse practitioner. I feel like COVID-19 made me fall back in love with critical care and remember why I went into it in the first place — to help patients and their families through the sickest, most vulnerable times in their life.

Kernes: I miss normalcy. I miss not wearing masks. I miss my co-workers who have left the ICU for good. Some of our patients were so sick that they remained intubated and sedated for a number of weeks. Personal connection is lacking. I really miss that.

Walker: I miss the team we used to have. So many people left because of burnout, and, not to say I don’t love our new staff, we had a pretty consistent team for a while without much turnover.

Wessels: It’s hard to even remember what life as a nurse was like prior to COVID-19. I miss not being able to see people’s faces at work.

What has stayed with you since the pandemic started?

Corrigan: When COVID-19 first hit Edward Hospital in March 2020, I had a 5-month-old baby at home who was born five weeks premature. At that time, we had no idea what this was, how it was treated, how transmissible it was or how to protect ourselves and our families. There was no vaccine. I remember putting on my PPE, entering my first COVID-19 isolation room with my peers by my side and wondering what we would be bringing home to our families. In the beginning of the pandemic, we had absolutely no visitors in the ICU. This was very difficult as we saw many patients die alone, with their loved ones saying goodbye on FaceTime.

Kernes: I remember my first COVID-19 patient. I remember my first COVID-19 death. These patients are complex and change with a blink of an eye. I remember thinking I had never seen a patient decline so fast. It's hard to wrap your head around it. It's emotionally and physically exhausting.

Walker: The hardest part of this has been comforting people when you really have no idea of the outcome. I always had COVID-19 patients call their family members or FaceTime them as we prepare to intubate. I’d be standing there thinking this is probably the last time they’ll speak to their family member and it was heartbreaking every time.

What do you want others to know about your experience as an ICU nurse during the past two years?

Corrigan: I think working as an Edward-Elmhurst Health ICU nurse is something to be extremely proud of. Over the past two years, our unit has grown into a family and the teamwork that I have seen is incredible. We have learned to be receptive to change, go with the flow, be flexible and, most importantly, to support each other, our patients and their families. In a time with so much unknown in healthcare, it was up to us as a team to get through this together. I feel forever changed as a person, a mother and a nurse from COVID-19.

Kernes: As ICU nurses, we learn to process death. However, the amount of death from COVID-19 is profound. And so much death in a short time span has been overwhelming. We are strong because of our teamwork and strong leadership from Jean Rader (director of critical care and inpatient ortho-spine) and Marie Spitzer (ICU clinical leader).

Walker: As nurses, we’ve really tried to do our best. Dr. Nemivant is great at making sure we are providing the best care — because everything was so new with COVID-19, we had to learn as we went, but we did. We know as a group what to do for our patients, and we know what is safe.

Wessels: These past two years have impacted us tremendously personally and professionally. We are not the same nurses. We have had to be resilient for our patients. We have had to be the ones holding the iPad as family members say goodbye to their loved one via FaceTime. These moments stick with you and you bring them home with you. You can’t un-see some of the moments and that changes you. There are still triggers that take me back to some of those moments and I am learning how to cope with that. I believe that we are stronger nurses separately and as a whole because of what we have gone through over these years. It has brought us closer as a team. It has also made me personally appreciate the little things in life and to live in the moment with my family and cherish each one of them.

I want people to know we have some of the best nurses who have been called to this line of work and, as taxing as the days and situations we face may be, we are always there for one another and continue to fight for our patients. What we have had to endure has been so emotionally, physically and mentally exhausting, and without living it firsthand, you can’t begin to understand. We can debrief with one another, let out our frustrations with one another and then pick back up and do the job we have all been called to do. We have had great leadership in Dr. Nemivant. He has seen what we’ve been through, is a constant support and takes time to encourage us and check in with us.

Talk about your decision-making process about the COVID-19 vaccine and the ICU baby boom.

Corrigan: In the ICU, we are very fortunate to have Dr. Nemivant to help educate us and answer questions that we have about COVID-19. I know that a lot of us leaned on him, as well as Dr. Jonathan Pinsky, to give us advice. As a nurse, there was not a doubt in my mind that getting the vaccine was the best choice for me. I remember feeling so fortunate to have access to the vaccine when we did, and I felt that by getting the vaccine, I was honoring all of the patients that we unfortunately lost before they had the opportunity to get the vaccine that may have saved their life.

Kernes: I am vaccinated and received my booster shot during my seventh month of pregnancy. I personally went to Dr. Nemivant for advice. My husband and I were having a difficult time getting pregnant and there were so many unknowns about pregnancy and receiving the vaccine. Based on my conversation with Dr. Nemivant, I decided to get vaccinated as the benefits outweighed the risks, especially working in a COVID-19 ICU. Shortly after receiving the vaccine, I got pregnant. It was per my obstetrician’s recommendation that I get the booster.

Walker: I got married in March 2021 and wasn’t anticipating getting pregnant after the honeymoon. I had a serious reaction to the flu shot (Guillen-Barre syndrome) and was advised to not get the COVID-19 vaccine when it first came out. Then, some new data came out that recommended pregnant moms get vaccinated both for their sake and the baby’s. I was still nervous about reacting adversely but decided, for me and for the baby, I would risk it. I got vaccinated when I was seven months pregnant and felt so relieved.

Wessels: I chose to be vaccinated prior to getting pregnant. With all I had been through on my pregnancy journey, I was a little apprehensive at first, but with counsel from my infertility specialist and knowing that I was on the frontlines, I decided that being vaccinated was the best choice for me. I ended up getting COVID-19 at six weeks of pregnancy and had peace of mind knowing that I had done all that I could to protect myself and my baby. Thankfully, my baby and I did fine, and I fought COVID-19 from home.

How has your perspective changed since having a baby?

Corrigan: Becoming a new mom is challenging in itself, but having two babies in the middle of a pandemic has shown me strength that I didn't even know I had. I am grateful for my co-workers who have been a tremendous support to me and I am thankful that we have each other to lean on in such a challenging time.

Wessels: I’ve been on this pregnancy journey since before COVID was a thing. During the first wave with all the uncertainties, we decided to pause our attempts at getting pregnant. However, once things seemed to be getting better and knowing this was a new normal, we didn’t want to delay our dreams of adding to our family any longer. We took counsel from my infertility specialist and took the appropriate precautions necessary to start this journey safely. We are beyond excited to welcome our little girl into this world after a three-year journey getting to this point, and we are thankful to God for our little miracle. We feel so blessed for the joy that we get to experience bringing this new life into the world.

Nurses are an unstoppable force. Providing care, comfort and compassion is all in a day’s work. Edward-Elmhurst Health is hiring nurses. Learn more about nursing and search for nursing opportunities.

Learn more about pregnancy and baby care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Get the latest information about COVID-19.

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