Despite the risks, retired Illinois health care providers are answering the call as hospitals battle a pandemic
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Despite the risks, retired Illinois health care providers are answering the call as hospitals battle a pandemic

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Robin Schmidt at her home in Naperville on March 25, 2020. Schmidt is a retired nurse who still has an active license and would like to return to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, if needed.

Robin Schmidt retired from her job as a rehabilitation nurse in 2018, thinking she was done with patient care. She later took a job screening patients for clinical trials.

But the Naperville woman is now ready to return to the bedside, if need be, as the COVID-19 outbreak threatens to fill hospital beds across Illinois.

"I’ve been a nurse for over 40 years, and that’s what I do,” said Schmidt, 64. “I would like to help if possible.”

At least 180 retired nurses, doctors, physician assistants and respiratory care therapists have answered Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s call for retired health care workers to return to the workforce by applying to have their professional licenses temporarily restored. “We’re in the middle of a battle and we need reinforcements,” Pritzker said Saturday in announcing the request.

People whose licenses are still active, like Schmidt, may also sign up at Illinois Helps, part of a national network of state-based volunteer registration systems. Those volunteers may then be called upon as needed.

But for some retired doctors, nurses and other health care workers, deciding whether to come back to work at this time could be difficult. Many of the retirees are in their 60s or older, which puts them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they become infected with the new coronavirus.

“God bless them if they’re willing to come back," said Patricia Meade, a registered nurse at Amita Health Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet and an Illinois Nurses Association board member. "That would be a blessing and a help. I just don’t know that’s practical on their part.”

On Monday, the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation announced some details on how the newly expedited process of reinstating licenses will work.

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Not everyone is eligible. Doctors and physician assistants whose medical licenses have been expired or inactive for less than three years may apply to restore their licenses temporarily, with no fee or continuing education requirements. The same is true for respiratory care therapists and nurses whose licenses have been inactive or haven’t been renewed for less than five years.

Those who get their licenses restored may work under the direction of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency or Illinois Department of Public Health, in a long-term care facility, in a hospital or in a type of community health care center that receives federal funds for helping patients in underserved areas.

State officials said 180 people applied for reinstatement in the first 24 hours the new process was available.

Maria Connolly, who is 73 and still has an active license as a registered nurse, was so eager to assist that she signed up as a volunteer with Illinois Helps a couple of weeks ago, before Pritzker even asked for retirees to step forward. Connolly, of Oak Forest, now works part time as an adjunct nursing professor at Loyola University Chicago.

She said that, to her frustration, she hasn’t heard back from Illinois Helps about how she might be put to use. The Illinois Department of Public Health did not answer questions about Illinois Helps by deadline Wednesday.

Connolly said she has no qualms about heading back into the fray.

“It has to do with doing what you know is right to do,” said Connolly, who used to work as a critical care nurse. “I just feel like I have something I know I can do well and effect change in another human’s life.”

She said she could do a lot of good in basic nursing care, data collection or desk work.

Connolly isn’t worried about her age putting her at higher risk. She said she walks 3 to 5 miles a day and is in good health.

Many retired doctors will also likely step forward to help, said Dr. Paul Pedersen, president of the Illinois State Medical Society. On the question of obtaining malpractice insurance, he said doctors who are employed by a hospital or medical group are typically covered by their employer.

State medical leaders said that, given the risks, returning to the workforce must be an individual decision and may be untenable for some.

“We do have retired members that are out there that really want to help, and they love taking care of patients,” said Alice Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Nurses Association. “But you have to take into consideration a retired nurse might be somebody who’s older, where there’s a greater risk for them.”

Randy Moore, CEO of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists, which is based in Park Ridge, noted that supplies of personal protective equipment, such as N95 face masks, have run short in some places.

“I’m thinking if it’s someone in my family who’s a retired nurse or nurse anesthetist, would I want them to expose themselves to that? That’s a very individual decision," Moore said.

Knowing nurse anesthetists, he said, he expects many will step up to answer Pritzker’s call, but “it’s one thing to run into the fire … with the equipment you need. It’s another thing to run into the fire without the equipment you need.”

Maureen Mulhall, administrator for the Illinois Society for Respiratory Care, noted that the retirees who have their licenses reinstated through the new process might be on the younger side, given the three-to-five-year limit on the time spent without an active license. That could mitigate the risk, she said.

The restriction makes sense at the moment but might need to be re-evaluated in coming weeks, said Susan Swart, executive director of the American Nurses Association Illinois.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has not provided predictions of how quickly hospital beds here might fill with COVID-19 patients, but overwhelmed hospitals in Italy offer a grim sense of what could happen.

“If things get as bad as they’re predicting, we might need to change that,” Swart said of the five-year limit for nurses. “But, at this point, it gives some type of assurance that the person has what I will deem to be current knowledge of nursing.

“Health care changes very quickly, and so someone who’s been out 10 or 15 years, of course, they have the basics of nursing -- you really don’t forget that,” Swart said. “But when it comes to medication and procedures and things like that, those things do change.”

Schmidt, the Naperville nurse who wants to offer her services where needed, said some retired nurses might have to catch up on how to use new equipment but would be able to handle the most central tasks of the job. “Some things are like riding a bike,” she said.

She said she’s not sure what she’d do if she were infected after returning to nursing work. She said she and her husband are both healthy and will deal with that question when, and if, they must.

“I’m willing to take the risk,” she said.

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