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April 23, 2020

Nursing Professor Cares for Most Vulnerable Chicagoans in Covid-19 Crisis

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Heather Duncan, Assistant Professor of Nursing

North Park nursing professor Heather Duncan is on the frontlines of the Covid-19 outbreak, treating some of the most vulnerable Chicagoans. As a nurse with Lawndale Christian Health Care’s Mobile Health Team, she risks her own safety every day to care for the most underserved among us. She took a moment out of her busy day to describe her experience.

Q: Tell us about those first few days after the first confirmed COVID-19 cases.

A: When the COVID-19 crisis hit Chicago, it took weeks before consideration was given to Chicago’s homeless residents. Lawndale was at the forefront, partnering with the city, UIC, RUSH, and the Westside Homeless Coalition. Because of our expertise with the homeless population, Lawndale spearheaded the first shelter screening in Chicago. I was fortunate to be on that team. We screened approximately 400 residents of Chicago’s largest shelter. It was a unique and tenuous time, even for someone with 30 years of experience. We had no testing capabilities, despite working with the city and UIC infectious disease. So little was known about the novel coronavirus, we were constantly updating. This added another level of uncertainty on top of the lack of infection control, which is difficult in large shelters. It was a dumpster fire. One we and our partners at UIC jumped into without hesitation.

Q: What was the atmosphere like?

A: Despite the uncertainty and potential infection, we were committed to our patients. Lawndale’s motto is “Loving God, Loving People.” This was our primary goal; to protect the least of these. Imagine being sheltered in place when you have no home and are living in a homeless shelter. The feeling of incarceration and lack of control, compound the hopelessness of being homeless. Patients had to be quarantined together in a separate room. We had to don full PPE (personal protective equipment) each time we went in, which made our patients nervous and limited our ability to establish a rapport.

Q: Where are these patients being housed now?

A: We are now housing and caring for over 100 medically complex homeless patients, to try and keep them out of the hospital adding another burden to the medical system. We are caring for patients who sometimes have never before had consistent medical care. However, we have to keep them isolated in their rooms, which is mentally and emotionally difficult. There has been a lack of affordable housing in Chicago for decades and now is no different.

Working at the hotel is unique. It has never been done before. It is exhausting but exhilarating. There is a sense of purpose, of walking with Jesus as we serve His people. We are tired and waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel. While we wait, we will be living out lives of significance and service, treating an amazing group of God’s children.

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