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ICU nurses known as the Old Dolls lean on each other during pandemic

CHICAGO >> Intensive care unit nurse Raquel “Rocky” Collanto is 63 and cares for her 91-year-old mother, so when COVID-19 patients began to arrive at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, her supervisor offered her options. Collanto could transfer to another department or to a different ICU unit where there would be less risk of exposure to the potentially deadly virus.

Collanto thought about it; the virus scares her.

But then she thought about the young nurses in her unit, the ones who call her “Mom.” They were so full of energy and compassion, and they all wanted to stay and fight.

“I will stay with my team,” she said.

The “Old Dolls,” a group of ICU nurses in their 50s and older, were a local legend at Northwestern even before the new coronavirus struck. And in the days that followed, the 10 who remain in the ICU after 30 years or more have continued to care for some of the city’s sickest patients despite being in an age bracket that puts them at added risk from the virus.

Four are now working directly with COVID-19 patients, and all are playing vital roles in the intensive care units, both as caregivers and supervisors, and as “work moms” for younger nurses.

“I feel like they are such a symbol of hope,” ICU nurse Katherine Glaser, 23, said of the Old Dolls she works with.

“It’s difficult going to work and not really knowing what you’re going to face that day, so having them there, being able to really fall back on them, is really, really nice.”

Members of the Old Dolls, originally a group of about two dozen, trace their origins to the 1980s and 1990s at Northwestern. Even then, “doll” was an old-school term of endearment, and the Dolls — hard-charging health care professionals in their 30s — weren’t big fans of the term.

But some recall that a fellow nurse, an older man, insisted on using it.

“Hey, doll, come help me here,” he might say to a female nurse.

“We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, why is he saying that?’” recalled ICU nurse Andrea Baer, 58, the youngest of the 10 remaining Old Dolls.

“I think that played a role — (Old Dolls) was sort of an homage to that old-fashioned nurse who was not at all P.C.”

Many ICU nurses left through the years, taking jobs that were less physical or less stressful; an intensive care nurse can be on her feet for an entire 12-hour shift, moving patients twice her size, dealing with one crisis after the next, advocating for patients with doctors and pharmacists, and soothing distraught family members. But the Old Dolls who left kept in touch, with some now sending food and messages of encouragement to the Old Dolls who remain in the ICU.

“I grew up with everybody, from my 20s to my 30s, 40s, 50s,” said Old Doll Cindy Pascalo, 60, a nurse in the medical intensive care unit.

“We raised children together. We lost parents together. And just the work ethic: In my unit everybody helps everybody, so you’re never feeling alone.”

Both Pascalo and another Old Doll, Linda Michna, 61, have daughters who became nurses at Northwestern.

When the coronavirus crisis came, the Old Dolls got the option to work in non-COVID ICUs, according to Jaime Hosler, a patient- care manager at Northwestern.

But four of the Old Dolls opted to work with COVID-19 patients, and all continued to anchor the ICU units, with more than 300 years of combined experience.

“They’ve been so vital to leading our workforce through these crazy times,” said Hosler. “They are the true leaders of our hospital.”

Pascalo has worked directly with dozens of COVID-19 patients as a code nurse who transfers patients in crisis to the ICU. She feels safe, she said, because staff members are following safety guidelines and wearing recommended protective gear.

“The level of (patient) suffering is 100 times what I’m used to,” Pascalo said of COVID-19. “The hardest part is they can’t have visitors. I can’t imagine having a loved one in the hospital and not even be able to console them or sit by their bedside.”

She said the coronavirus crisis is like nothing she’s seen as an intensive care nurse. And the Old Dolls have seen a lot, including the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when no one knew how HIV was transmitted, but intensive care nurses suited up and cared for very ill patients.

The defining thing about COVID-19, she said, is that so many patients are getting so ill so fast.

But there are also success stories: Pascalo treated a young man who was very sick, very scared and expecting a child with his pregnant wife.

“Don’t worry,” Pascalo said, making two promises to the young man that she felt she could actually keep: “We’re going to take care of you. We’re going to make you comfortable.”

The man got extremely ill and had to be sedated and put on a ventilator, but he recovered and was able to transfer out of the COVID unit.

Collanto said that with COVID-19 she can sometimes see the fear in the faces of younger nurses. She feels fear herself: “It’s really scary.”

“The most fear that I have is for my family,” she said. “My mom is older, but I have my own room — we have an extra room where I stay. I use another bathroom. I change my clothes in the garage, and we have working shoes that stay in the unit.”

And now, more than ever, being a nurse feels like a calling, she said. Her younger co-workers have canceled their time off, or come to work after the pandemic led them to postpone their weddings.

“Everyone is in the unit right now. No one is on vacation,” she said. “I think that keeps me going: to see these kids that are really willing to help out.”

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