As they focused on others with COVID-19 and refused to walk away, Illinois health care workers bore the brunt of pandemic's fury

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Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

CHICAGO — This past March, as the nurses in MacNeal Hospital’s intensive care unit were overwhelmed treating COVID-19 patients, Neuman Kiamco did not hesitate to join his colleagues.

The nurse left his post in the Berwyn hospital’s gastrointestinal lab and confronted an invisible enemy in the ICU that many of his colleagues on the medical front line were calling “the beast” or “the killer.”

His family is scattered across the world, including a father in the Philippines, and so Kiamco sent messages and the kind of photos of himself that have become ubiquitous in medicine’s global battle against the virus: at work, covered from head to toe in a face shield, mask, gown and gloves.

“We are in emergency mode,” he texted his sister, Jeanette Kiamco Perez, on March 19. “The streets are dead. A lot of businesses are closing. The emergency department is getting hammered. It is like a war zone here.”

Not far away, at Community First Medical Center in Chicago, Nancy Veto was caring for infected patients in the ICU, where the nurse worked for about 45 years and mentored younger staff members.

Relatives said she worried about depleted personal protective equipment and described her workplace as a scene out of “MASH,” the hit television sitcom about an Army hospital during the Korean War.

“We have bodies lying everywhere,” her brother, Dick Cisner, a retired Chicago police officer, recalled Veto telling him.

Before summer’s end, both nurses were dead.

They died of complications related to the coronavirus, likely infected while laboring to save others at a time when most of the world stayed home.

More than 100 lives of professionals working in the health care field have been lost in Illinois this past six months since COVID-19 began its deadly march through the state.

At last count, at least 112 had died and more than 15,250 had contracted the virus as of Sept. 10, according to state public health officials, who said the exact figure is unknown and likely higher. Four more deaths and nearly 400 infections were listed in a separate category for first responders, not including law enforcement.

Some states do not collect virus data by occupation, as Illinois does for those ages 17 to 69. But there are limits to what has been gathered. The state relies on county health departments to provide the information, and officials said they have received occupational information back in only about 25% of all confirmed infection cases.

Advocacy groups are calling for more accurate data nationwide to raise awareness and better protect the workforce. To put the problem in perspective, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges incomplete information in reporting about 700 health care workers across the country were lost to COVID-19 as of Sept. 17.

National Nurses United has reported about 1,700 deaths, more than double than the CDC, during the same time period. And the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which tracks nursing homes, reports nearly 900 worker fatalities just in those facilities nationwide, including 45 in Illinois.

The Chicago Tribune has identified and interviewed the families of nearly 50 deceased health care workers in Illinois to chronicle the devastating loss of life and acts of heroism.

They include nurses, doctors, medical assistants, technicians, therapists and other support staff who clean rooms, serve food and provide security.

The dead worked in hospitals, nursing homes, private offices or on ambulance crews and in homes as health aides. Most were minorities, including those who were Black and by themselves made up nearly half of the 112 counted. Many had an underlying health condition that made them particularly vulnerable.

Some were near retirement or had delayed it as they refused to leave their careers during a time of such crisis. Relatives compared the dedication of their loved one during the pandemic to that shown by 9/11 rescuers who did not pause when facing danger nearly two decades ago.

A DEDICATED NURSE

It was hard to rattle Nancy Veto, a veteran ICU nurse.

She saw it all in her 45 years at the Portage Park hospital that is now called Community First Medical Center. But even she felt fear as the rapidly spreading coronavirus exploded into a pandemic, overwhelming hospitals this past spring.

Her daughter, Giavanna Veto, said even so, her mother refused to quit.

“Her hospital at one point was making the nurses reuse their masks, reuse their gloves and reuse their gowns,” she said. “My mother was scared and came home shaking, saying, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”

When she asked her mother to stop working, Veto remembered her responding, “‘I can’t. I can’t. I’ve gone through so much already. Why would I stop now? I can’t give up on these people.’”

Veto died May 26 in her River Grove home after a nearly weeklong illness related to COVID-19. She was 65. Her dedication did not surprise her family. Cisner, her brother, said his sister wanted to be a nurse from a young age. She became a mother later in life and treasured that role as well.

“I’d describe her as very educated, very dignified and very devoted to her profession,” Cisner said. “Not only was she a wonderful nurse, but she was a good mother and provider to her daughter.”

In a statement, hospital officials said the “much-loved ICU nurse” was a “dedicated mentor to many of our ICU nurses and staff. She led by example, demonstrating her commitment to both patients and our hospital every day.”

In her personal life, Veto was the life of the party, decked out in bright, glittery colors with pink nails and lipstick. She loved Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” which her daughter played at her memorial service. After the room emptied, she played Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” another favorite, as a final goodbye to a mother whom she called her best friend.

Giavanna Veto said her mother never wanted a patient to die alone, and so she often stayed at the bedsides of those without family or friends in their final hour. It was a ritual of profound significance during this pandemic, when safety guidelines keep families away.

‘SUPERWOMAN’

One day after she was brought into this world, Dorothy Sims’ mother died after suffering complications from her birth.

Relatives on that day in November 1984 named her Dorothy, after the woman who would never get to care for her. The tragedy marked her life and also set her path. It was her 21-year-old mother’s death that inspired Sims to become a nurse when she grew up, relatives said.

The 35-year-old Schaumburg nurse died July 7 of complications related to COVID-19. Sims worked at Burr Ridge Senior Living in DuPage County while raising three children and continuing her education to advance her nursing career.

“She knew from a young age that she wanted to help people,” said her sister, Crystal Sims. “She cared about everybody. If you were in her life, she put a smile on your face.”

Dorothy Sims grew up on Chicago’s South Side, the youngest of three girls. She was raised by her mother’s sister, Edna Tellis, who nicknamed the sweet child “Tookie.” She fell in love with her high school boyfriend, Austin McAllister Sr., and the young couple had three children.

Her father, Mario, said his hardworking daughter held down three jobs at times to help support her family.

“She was determined to give her children a better life than what she had,” he said. “She worked full time, went to school and took care of three children. She was a superwoman.”

Her sisters, including Erica, the oldest, said she loved travel, the color purple and throwing lavish birthday parties for her children, ages 17, 15 and 13. Besides “Tookie,” they called her “Nurse D.”

Relatives said she did not complain about her struggles, including that she had lupus, an autoimmune disease. They were worried about her health during the pandemic and encouraged her to quit, but the rapidly spreading virus had other plans.

Dorothy Sims died at Northwestern Memorial Hospital after more than one month on a ventilator. Her father said the family was optimistic that she would qualify for a double lung transplant, but their hopes were dashed when doctors said she did not meet the medical criteria.

“They had our hopes up real high,” he said. “She’s so terribly missed.”

Several weeks after her death, the young nurse still does not have a headstone on her grave. Relatives say her life insurance company has yet to honor her policy. A fundraising campaign has been set up.

Tellis said Sims’ mother would have been so proud of her daughter. “She tried so hard and reached her goals,” Tellis said. “She gave her own life for others.”

Burr Ridge Senior Living had 21 positive cases and five deaths of patients and staff as of Sept. 11, according to state public health officials.

UNANSWERED PRAYERS

Rosie Swain died two days before turning 65, the age when she planned to retire.

She was a nursing supervisor at City View Multicare Center in Cicero, where her family said she worked since the 1980s, beginning as a nursing assistant. The single mother of three children managed to continue her education and work her way up to a registered nurse who trained and supervised staff.

“She took care of herself last,” said her youngest daughter, Tina Swain. “She just always wanted to help people, and that’s what she did with her life. … We heard from so many of her co-workers who said they wouldn’t be the nurses they are today if it weren’t for her.”

Rosie Swain was at work the night in November 1987 that her only son, Ronnell, 17, was fatally shot after leaving a Chicago teen dance hall. She persevered, becoming a supervisor while raising two daughters, including Wendy Swain, her oldest. The girls grew up to give her four grandchildren, including a grandson named after the boy she had lost.

She loved to take her grandchildren shopping, to the movies and to dinner. The family gathered for Sunday meals, typically in Swain’s home in the Marquette Park neighborhood, where she served up staples like sweet potato pie. She was known as a sharp dresser who loved the blues.

When Swain tested positive for COVID-19 in April, the nurse warned her family to stay away so she would not infect them, Tina Swain said. She said her mother fought to survive for nearly three months, including stays in four hospitals, but died June 7 after her heart gave out during a blood transfusion.

“My mom taught us to believe in Jesus,” Tina Swain said. “She said, ‘If you’re going to worry, then you don’t need to pray.’ We were hopeful because we believe in prayer.”

The facility where Swain worked has had 256 positive cases and 15 deaths of patients and staff as of Sept. 11, state officials said.

‘HONEY, I HAVE THE VIRUS’

At 78, Dr. Joseph Bongiorno Sr. could have retired years ago. But the Chicago psychiatrist loved his work and was committed to his patients, relatives said.

The son of a general practitioner, he earned his medical degree from the University of Wisconsin and completed his residency in Chicago. In the 1970s, he served as a U.S. Air Force Medical Service Corps officer providing mental health services to men returning from the Vietnam War while stationed at the Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Afterward, Dr. Bongiorno returned to Illinois and opened a private practice in Chicago and Skokie. He also joined the staff of what was then St. Joseph Hospital in Chicago for a decade before focusing solely on his private practice, including counseling priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“He was such a wonderful man,” said his daughter, Maddi Bongiorno, the oldest of four. “He could have hidden out in his house, but he just couldn’t abandon his patients.”

She said the family tried without luck to encourage him to take a break during the pandemic. In mid-March, she said her father told her he was ill. “Dad answered (his phone) from the ICU,” she said. “He was like, ‘Honey, I have the virus. I can’t breathe.’”

He was placed on a ventilator the next day. With most of the family living out of state and unable to travel, his children, including daughter Catherine and sons Joseph Jr. and Carlo, began a “letter reading campaign.” His nurses dutifully read their emails to him for encouragement.

“We want you to know that we are with you every single minute,” one letter read. “We have so many friends and family praying with you, sending you healing energy and love. We are all so proud of your courage. You will get through this challenge, we have zero doubt. …

“Words cannot express how much we love you, Dad.”

Dr. Bongiorno died nearly one month later on April 14 at St. Joseph, where he had once worked.

A POLICEMAN’S DAUGHTER

Karon Hoffman decided to go back to school and pursue nursing late in life.

Her decision did not surprise her family. The daughter of a decorated Chicago police officer who survived being shot in the chest, Hoffman made a habit of trailblazing through life and embracing new challenges.

She graduated from the Chicago police academy and worked for the Sleepy Hollow Police Department as a 911 dispatcher and patrol officer at a time when few women pursued law enforcement as a career. She also worked as a fire department paramedic, a CPR instructor and, later, as a real estate appraiser.

“She never stopped learning and never stopped trying new things,” said her daughter, Jessica Allen.

Hoffman passed the state nursing exam and graduated from community college with high honors at 65. She spent the next few years caring for her husband, Dave, before reentering the workforce so the couple could afford medication not covered by Medicare.

In January, she was excited to begin her first nursing job at Alden Terrace of McHenry but became ill in April. Allen said her mother, who tested positive for the coronavirus, was hospitalized about six weeks before she died May 18. She was 69.

Hoffman did not work with COVID-19 patients, but her family said the staff shared many common areas as the virus spread in the facility. They said the staff lacked adequate personal protective equipment during the early days of the pandemic.

The facility had 86 confirmed cases and 13 deaths of patients and staff as of Sept. 11, state officials said.

Hoffman had three children, including her oldest daughter Jenny Winkler and a son, Karl Hoffman, and eight grandchildren. She loved farming, animals, canning jelly and vegetables, gardening and attending the county fair. She was so honest she would go back through a drive-thru if given too much change.

Hoffman’s father was Clarence Kerr, who survived being shot in 1955 by a serial robber when she was 5 years old. The shooter was executed three years later for killing another police officer days before injuring Kerr.

When planning Hoffman’s funeral, Winkler recalled how her mother was impressed when seeing long funeral processionals. The deceased must have been someone special, she would say. Winkler ensured her mother’s service was led by police and fire officials from four departments. A bagpiper played “Amazing Grace” at her gravesite.

“To some, she may be remembered as a health care hero who sacrificed to help others,” Winkler said. “To those who knew and loved her, she was so much more. She followed her dreams and achieved a meaningful life helping others.”

LEAVING A MARK

Neuman Kiamco was a beloved presence at MacNeal Hospital, where the distinctive tap of his shoes could be heard as he hustled up and down the hallways. He was so skilled and meticulous that some colleagues called him “Dr. Neuman” or used the term “Neumanized” when referring to his care of patients.

“I’ve been doing this over 30 years and there has never been another Neuman,” said Sylvia Acosta-Janecki, a fellow nurse at the Berwyn hospital.

Kiamco grew up in Mandaue City, Cebu, the central part of the Philippines. His parents pushed him and his four siblings toward the medical field with the goal of living abroad. Kiamco set his sights on the United States. After nursing school, he joined his uncle’s family in the Chicago area in his early 20s.

He worked at Loyola University Medical Center before joining MacNeal’s staff about 15 years ago. In March, during the pandemic, Acosta-Janecki said her friend did not hesitate to transfer from the GI lab to help in the short-staffed ICU.

More than three months later, when Kiamco showed up for a June 22 shift with a fever, he was admitted as a patient after he tested positive for the coronavirus. No one could predict just how dire the 48-year-old nurse’s condition would become.

His fellow nurses cared for him at MacNeal for nearly two weeks, including in the ICU. Acosta-Janecki said the normally gregarious man was quiet and humble. He preferred his room dark and quiet, even ignoring the Fourth of July fireworks when she raised his room’s window blinds.

“It broke my heart, as bright of a spirit as he was,” she said. “He asked for people to continue praying for him. He kept thanking God. He knew he had a long road ahead of him.”

On July 5, Kiamco asked his nurse to dial longtime friend Gwendolyn Trinidad so he could tell her the staff planned to put him on a ventilator due to his low oxygen saturation level. Trinidad, also a nurse who had previously worked alongside Kiamco, tried to encourage him that he would be OK.

“I’ll talk to you later,” he said as they ended their video chat call. It was the last time the two ever spoke.

Kiamco went into cardiopulmonary arrest. Staff resuscitated him and he was transferred that same day to Loyola, where he eventually was placed on a more advanced life support machine. Kiamco fought the virus another two months, at times in a medically induced coma, but he never regained consciousness and died Aug. 30.

When he still could speak, colleagues say, Kiamco told them he hoped to donate his plasma and volunteer for research studies with the hope of curing other COVID-19 patients.

“That was my friend.” Trinidad said. “He would go out of his way to help you.”

His sister, Jeanette Kiamco Perez, said the family is comforted by all the messages of love and praise. She recalled the image of her younger brother as a child singing his solo part in the song “Climb Every Mountain” with siblings as she played the piano or how he, at times playfully mischievous, messed up her bedroom.

“I didn’t realize that he was so heroic,” said Kiamco Perez, who lives in Canada. “To know he made such an impact, in a way, kind of eases the pain of losing him.”

More than 100 mourners gathered outside the Berwyn hospital Sept. 12 for a vigil for Kiamco that Acosta-Janecki organized. His cousin, Robin Kiamco, thanked health care professionals and spoke of the importance to heed public safety guidelines. He described Kiamco as a “man with a plan,” always trying to better himself.

“Whether we are here for 48, 80 or even 100 years, our time on earth is like this,” he said, snapping his fingers. “It’s that short. Our job is to leave a mark, leave something positive behind.” As he looked out at the crowd, he said it is clear his cousin did just that.

In social media posts before he became ill, Neuman Kiamco, who was single, occasionally shared inspirational photos or quotes. One was particularly poignant and prophetic.

“Work for a cause, not for applause,” it read. “Don’t strive to make your presence noticed, just make your absence felt.”

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(Chicago Tribune’s John Keilman contributed to this report.)

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