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Heroes For Better

Making History: Year of the Nurse

Challenging, changing and writing history at Northwestern Medicine

The COVID-19 pandemic brought into focus one enduring truth: Nurses are essential to providing excellent patient care. Here are just a few of the thousands of Northwestern Medicine nurses who made history by making better care possible for patients during the pandemic.


Karin Podolski, MSN, MPH, RN

Director, Community Health Services • Northwestern Medicine

As director of Northwestern Medicine Community Health Services, Podolski helped the health system's community partners stay safe by providing personal protective equipment (PPE), flu vaccines and eventually COVID-19 vaccines.

Karin Podolski

Karin Podolski, MSN, MPH, RN

Why did you become a nurse?

I always knew I wanted to work in health care. When I was in high school, I had surgery on my ankle and will never forget one nurse whom I connected with. She held my hand as I went under anesthesia and was there when I woke up. I often think of her when I work with patients.

In nursing school, one of my favorite clinical sites was at a health department, where we made home visits to new moms, and provided socialization and early intervention while connecting families to community resources. This is where my passion for community health started to develop. I enjoy being able to work with different populations and partners to improve the overall health of a community.

How has your job changed during the pandemic?

In the first months of the pandemic, we saw our neighbors show their dedication and support of Northwestern Medicine through donations of treats, meals, cards and other items. Our team worked to accept donations and distribute them to front-line workers and community partners. My favorite donations were those that we received when a patient had been discharged after receiving care for COVID-19 and wanted to bring a meal for the staff that cared for them. Those were truly heartwarming stories.

We also collaborated with agencies to assist them in their reopening efforts. We provided funding for PPE and digital thermometers to schools for home use in order to facilitate a healthy learning environment for students and staff.
As we entered the fall, we provided community-based flu vaccine clinics in our high-hardship communities. I had a blast hanging out in parking lots and delivering flu shots on behalf of Northwestern Medicine and connecting with our most vulnerable populations.

Flu season then transitioned into COVID-19 vaccination season. We've assisted with Northwestern Medicine employee vaccine clinics as well as patient events. This has been the most rewarding component of my job since the beginning of the pandemic. To hear the stories of hope and gratitude to Northwestern Medicine for offering clinics to our patients is so heartwarming. I would enjoy asking staff and patients where they were from, and several had traveled many miles to receive their vaccine.

What hasn't changed? I still have the great fortune to work with a dedicated group of individuals who are committed to promoting health within our community.

What keeps you motivated and inspired?

I am so very thankful for the opportunities that I have been provided during my 23 years with Northwestern Medicine. I started as a recent grad in the Same-Day Surgery Department at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital and was promoted to leadership within two years. I used the tuition benefits from Northwestern Medicine to earn a master's degree in nursing, a master's degree in public health and a master's in business administration.

I receive inspiration by connecting with our health departments and community partners to identify unique ways to address the needs in our community. I also work with a dedicated team of professionals who are committed to Northwestern Medicine and our mission.

Ultimately, I am also inspired by my 17-year-old daughter, Schuyler. I seek to provide a positive example of commitment and hard work, and I know that she will also continue to be a great asset to her community.


The 'Old Dolls'

Nurses, Intensive Care Units • Northwestern Memorial Hospital

The Old Dolls have worked together since the 1980s.

The Old Dolls are a group of nurses at Northwestern Memorial Hospital who have worked together since the 1980s. They provided care during the AIDS crisis and banded together again through the COVID-19 pandemic.These nurses have mentored dozens of new nurses during the pandemic and even received the "Healthcare Heroes" award from the Red Cross of Illinois in 2021.

"Old Dolls" is a nickname they gave to themselves, but others at Northwestern Memorial Hospital call them the "backbone of the hospital's intensive care units."

This group includes:

  • Raquel B. Collanto, BSN, RN, CCRN, clinical coordinator in the Coronary Care Unit
  • Cynthia Pascalo, BSN, RN, Medical Intensive Care Unit
  • Andrea Baer, RN, Coronary Care Unit
  • Valerie Gongaware, RN, Coronary Care Unit
  • Kathleen Hoke, RN, education coordinator in the Cardiac-Transplant Intensive Care Unit
  • Phyllis "Peach" Donnan, RN, Cardiac-Transplant Intensive Care Unit
  • Susan O'Connell, RN, Medical Intensive Care Unit

As one of the Old Dolls, Collanto reflects on her career and the impact of the pandemic.

Why did you become a nurse? 

Truthfully, I had no idea what I wanted to be as a child. I got so confused at my young age, so I went to church and thought deeply about what I wanted to be. I applied to nursing school. Throughout my career, I've embraced the challenge of helping patients who are sick. I feel very happy when my patients get better and  go home. I truly think it was a calling for me. This is not just a job; you must have a lot of compassion to be a nurse. With the pandemic, I look back on my confusion when I was younger about what career path I should follow, and it's now crystal clear: I fully understand why I'm supposed to be a nurse. I am glad I followed my gut.

How has your job changed during the pandemic?   

I felt more committed because of how much we're needed. I felt more compassionate and really became more emotional. I just could not believe this was happening. I felt the teamwork from all the healthcare providers. It was challenging but satisfying because I feel like my job is very important and I make a difference.

What keeps you motivated and inspired?  

The teamwork from all the healthcare providers and the enthusiasm from everyone, especially our younger staff. I feel like they needed more support from us as senior staff. Also, the support from our senior leaders and our community, as well as the innovations and research that may help to hopefully stop the pandemic. I really want to see the end of this. I also help in giving vaccinations as much as I can.


Karena Brown, MSN, RN, CMSRN

Patient Care Manager • Northwestern Memorial Hospital

Karena Brown

Karena Brown, MSN, RN, CMSRN, has served on medical-surgical units and COVID-19 units at Northwestern Memorial Hospital throughout the pandemic.

Adaptable and flexible are the two words to describe Karena Brown, MSN, RN, CMSRN. At Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she has worked on medical-surgical units and COVID-19 units, serving where she is needed to support patient care while setting an example of resilience for her team of nurses.

Why did you become a nurse?

My Auntie Ray was a nurse in inner city Memphis, Tennessee, in the mid-70s and absolutely loved her job! She worked for "15 glorious years" in the emergency department before becoming a house supervisor. As a Black nurse in a racially charged area of the South, she experienced a lot. She would often share stories with me, which always kept me interested in health care. She always talked about the importance of representing as a Black nurse, and the comfort it provided patients who were under the care of someone who looked like them. That was not common at that time in that area. I initially wanted to go to medical school, but I shadowed a nurse, and that truly confirmed that nursing was my destiny.

How has your job changed during the pandemic?

Working in a pandemic has taught me the power of strong teamwork and trust. I feel very lucky to work with my team! The biggest challenge I would say is everything moving to a virtual setting. Before the pandemic, I spent as little time as possible in front of a computer screen. Once we had to socially distance and all meetings were virtual, that screen time significantly increased. My technology skills were put to the test, and I really had to work to find the humanistic elements in this new virtual world.

What keeps you motivated and inspired?

It's cliché, but my family and my friends motivate me. I am very lucky to have strong people in my life who are supportive, challenging, creative and caring. Through them, I have learned and am still learning the importance of perspective, representation, grace, strength and patience. Their impact in the world motivates me to make an impact. They constantly push me to be the best person I can be for others, both mentally and physically.


Sanja Josipovic, RN

Clinical Nurse • Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine

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Sanja and Edina at Edina's nursing school graduation ceremony at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital, part of Northwestern Medicine, in winter 2020.

When Edina Habibovic, RN, graduated from nursing school in winter of 2020, Sanja Josipovic, RN, was there to fulfill a very special request.

Habibovic's mother and Josipovic were both Bosnian refugees. Josipovic started out as a nurse for Habibovic's mother, but over the course of her illness, the two became friends, and Habibovic was inspired to become a nurse herself. When Habibovic's mother knew she would not live to see her daughter become a nurse, she asked Josipovic to attend the graduation ceremony in her place.

Due to restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, no official ceremony was held, so Josipovic worked with her nurse manager to hold an intimate ceremony at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital for Habibovic. Now, the women work together to provide better care for patients at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital.

Here, Josipovic talks about what her profession means to her.

Why did you become a nurse?

All my life, I knew that I wanted to work as a nurse. I always wanted to help others, especially after my father got sick, and I was able to help him at home.

How has your job changed during the pandemic?

At the beginning of COVID-19 in 2020, I volunteered to work on the COVID-19 Unit at Marianjoy. It was very tough for me in the beginning, working in an area that was outside of my typical role, but Marianjoy nurses were very helpful and supportive of each other, which made a lot of difference. 

What keeps you motivated and inspired?

The thought of being there to help someone in need is very motivating to me.


Salacnib "Sonny" Molina, RN

Team Leader, Orthopaedics and Podiatry • Northwestern Medicine McHenry Hospital

In 2021, Sonny Molina, RN, won the Northwestern Medicine Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for his efforts giving back to the community through feats of personal fitness. Molina has run in barefoot races around the world and holds 10 Guinness World Records for running half marathons, marathons and ultramarathons while barefoot, raising money for various humanitarian efforts with each race.

Molina also holds a Guinness World Record for the farthest distance walking barefoot on Lego® bricks, an effort that raised $1,225 to buy Lego toy sets for families who couldn't afford gifts during the holiday season. In conjunction with the event, he also accepted donations of Lego sets from the community.

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Molina holds a Guinness World Record for the farthest distance walking barefoot on Lego® bricks, an effort that raised funds to buy Lego toy sets for children in need.

Why did you become a nurse?

I became a nurse because I love taking care of people who are sick. When I was a nursing student in the Philippines, I loved when we did our community rotation for our clinicals and visited the less fortunate families to take care of them. I have compassion for the poor and the sick, and maybe this explains why I always organize medical missions internationally to help the less fortunate community.

How has your job changed during pandemic?

At the start of the pandemic, I was more involved in the operating room since I was one of the few who stayed in our department while most of our staff was deployed to different floors. Outside work, I was more involved in charities donating goods to different communities. I organized gift-giving to the Philippines during the pandemic, donating canned goods, masks, rice, etc. I also donated some goods to countries in Africa.

What keeps you motivated and inspired?

I just love caring for the less fortunate. I am inspired and motivated by my parents. Growing up, I saw my parents giving bags of goods to the poor all the time, especially during the holiday season. My parents are not with us anymore, and I just want to continue the legacy and love of sharing that they taught me growing up. I always love sharing whatever I can because, who knows, maybe my kindness is someone else's answer to their prayers.


Lori Fanning, BSN, RN

Relief Charge Nurse and Preceptor, COVID-19 and Medical Surgical Units • Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital

Lori Fanning

Lori Fanning, BSN, RN at Northwestern Medicine Palos Hospital.

Lori Fanning, BSN, RN, has been a nurse at Palos Hospital for 13 years. Her peers describe her as positive, compassionate, humble and a team player who always lifts up staff and patients. Fanning champions new projects and embraces change easily, which is why she made history as a relief charge nurse and preceptor on a COVID-19 unit during the pandemic.

Why did you become a nurse?

I always knew I wanted to help people. When my grandfather became sick, it became clear to me that I wanted to become a nurse. Patients need to trust their nurse. They need to see a smile and hear words of comfort. They need someone to hold their hand and treat them with compassion, respect and dignity. I care for my patients as I would want my family to be treated and cared for in their greatest time of need.

How has your job changed during the pandemic?

COVID-19 turned my world upside down. My unit, which was a medical surgical unit, turned into a COVID-19 unit overnight and remains that way today. Each day was a learning experience, and the care and safety of our patients remained our priority. The pandemic reinforced that our patients are the most important part of our team.

Their families weren't allowed to visit, so we became their family. FaceTime became the new way to connect with their family outside hospital walls. Our new normal also means full PPE for all patient care. 

On my unit, our high level of teamwork is what I'm most proud of. My nursing team has stepped up to be patient advocates. We count on each other in big and small ways every shift. We have become stronger together through COVID-19.

What keeps you motivated?

Providing my patients with better care motivates me. I'm proud to be a nurse; it's who I am meant to be. Nursing is challenging, and though I strive to make a difference in my patients' lives, most of the time it seems like they have a greater impact on my life.