Cheryl Michalek had a nickname that captured her lemon-and-honey blend of tart but motherly care: “Trauma Mama.”
She taught emergency medical treatment to thousands of first-responders, who in turn passed down the lessons they learned to even more emergency medical technicians, paramedics, firefighters and police officers.
“When I go out with my young guys and I teach them,” said Crestwood Fire Chief Jon Bruce, “it’s a reflection and continuation of her training.”
Mrs. Michalek died March 5 at her Riverdale home after a struggle with Parkinson’s disease, according to Richard Michalek, her husband of 57 years. She was 77.
Her wake and funeral were filled with firefighters and police officers in dress uniforms. The Dolton Fire Department pulled up a truck, raised its ladder and flew the American flag.
A couple of nights a week for decades, Mrs. Michalek, still in uniform, would finish a nursing shift at Little Company of Mary Hospital and head to the emergency medical services classes she volunteered to teach in the south and southwest suburbs a couple of nights a week.
The Trauma Mama’s students didn’t just learn how to perform CPR, halt bleeding and wield a defibrillator, people who knew and worked with her said.
“She always instilled when you’re taking care of the patient, you need to treat that person like family,” said Midlothian Fire Chief Stephen M. Hotwagner. “They’re somebody’s brother, dad, daughter, son. Give them the same respect and care you expect your family to receive.”
Bruce, the Crestwood chief: “When you’re in a bad day, you’re on your 15th call and somebody slipped and fell and it’s 4:30 in the morning and you’re really tired, in the back of your mind was Cheryl’s voice: ‘Treat everybody like your mother.’ ”
It wasn’t always easy for her to stand before an overwhelmingly male room filled with firefighters and police officers, some of them under-experienced but overconfident. But she was a city girl who grew up in North Roseland. If a lesson was interrupted by a know-it-all, Mrs. Michalek would make sure he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. She might ask, “Do you wanna get yourself up here and you teach?”
Other Chicago-ese arrows in her quiver included ‘Knock it off” and “I’m not going to tell you how you want it to be. I’m going to tell you like it is.”
“Her last words to me were ‘What the hell,’ ” said her daughter, Sue Stacey. “She was so sassy.”
“She educated and trained so many emergency medical technicians with passion and humility,” said Dr. Bernie Heilicser of Ingalls Hospital, medical director of the South Cook County EMS System.
Those who went through the classes she organized included three Chicago fire commissioners, James Joyce, Ray Orozco Jr. and Robert Hoff, according to her son Gary Michalek, a Chicago firefighter.
“Cheryl’s one of the pioneers,” said Dr. Michael O’Mara, chair of emergency medicine at Little Company of Mary. “She was one of the first nurses to teach EMTs on the whole South Side.”
Mrs. Michalek went to Fenger High School, where she met her future husband when she bounced into biology class. “It was love at first sight,” he said.
She studied nursing at Thornton Community College.
The Michalek home was always a busy place. Two of her children, Gary and Jeff, practiced there with their rock band, Fusion. Sometimes, she’d let 10 or so kids pile in to her vehicle and take them to the local drive-in, where you’d pay by the carload.
“The Michalek house was the place to be,” said Jeff, a Riverdale police officer.
There weren’t a lot of extras for the kids growing up.
“I remember my mother going in her purse and digging out pennies to buy a pool pass for the summer,” said Sue Stacey, a dispatch supervisor. “We always had each other. We didn’t take vacations, but we had Sunday dinner.”
If her EMT students were struggling, she invited them over for study groups, said another son, Rick, who went into construction.
“Even up to the last moment, she was beautiful,” her husband said.
She is also survived by another son, Scott, a Metra conductor, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Michalek was cremated. Her wish was to be buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery next to her son, Daniel, whom she and her husband lost 50 years ago, when he was just two days old.