Lost on the frontline: These Chicago, suburban health workers lost their lives to COVID-19

They tended to patients in the city and suburbs and are among 878 American health workers nationally KHN and The Guardian have identified as victims of the pandemic.

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America’s health care workers are dying. In some states, medical personnel account for as many as 20% of known coronavirus cases. They tend to patients in hospitals, treating them, serving them food, cleaning their rooms. Others at risk work in nursing homes or are employed as home health aides.

“Lost on the Frontline,” a collaboration between KHN and The Guardian, so far has identified 878 such workers who likely died of COVID-19 after helping patients during the pandemic.

These, from the Chicago area, are some of them, confirmed by family members, employers and medical examiners.

Karon Hoffman.

Karon Hoffman.

Courtesy of Jenny Winkler

Karon Hoffman: At 65, nursing became her second act

Age: 69

Occupation: Licensed practical nurse

Place of work: Alden Terrace of McHenry

Date of death: May 18, 2020

Karon Hoffman’s daughter Jenny Winkler paid for her first college class to encourage her. That same year, Hoffman’s son Karl returned home from the Army and also wanted to take a course. Mother and son ended up in the same introductory computer class.

“She had the No. 1 grade in the class, and he had No. 2,” Winkler said.

Hoffman previously worked as a 911 dispatcher, EMT and most recently a real estate appraiser. At 65, when most of her peers were thinking about retirement, she graduated from a community college with high honors and an associate’s degree in arts. She took the nursing licensing exam and passed.

She never let others tell her what to do, said daughter Jessica Allen. Hoffman’s hobbies included canning dandelion jelly, gardening and going to garage sales with her grandchildren.

In January, Hoffman started her first nursing job at the Alden Terrace rehabilitation center after taking a few years post-graduation to tend to her husband’s health and her own. She needed the income to afford medications that weren’t covered by Medicare, according to family members, who believe she was infected in early April, shortly after completing orientation training.

Her family said that facility’s nurses were not provided personal protective equipment unless they were working on the designated COVID-19 floor, which Hoffman was not. Yet all staff used the same break rooms, Winkler said. Alden Terrace did not return repeated requests for comment.

— Theresa Gaffney, City University of New York

Dr. Joseph Bongiorno Sr.

Dr. Joseph Bongiorno Sr.

Courtesy of Joseph Bongiorno Jr.

Dr. Joseph Bongiorno Sr.: Found ‘the thing that made him happy’

Age: 78

Occupation: Psychiatrist

Place of work: Private practice, Chicago

Date of death: April 14, 2020

Dr. Joseph Bongiorno worked for nearly a decade with Dr. James Sullivan at Saint Joseph Hospital on the North Side. Neither imagined the two of them would meet again as doctor and patient in a pandemic.

They had not seen each other since Bongiorno chose to focus exclusively on private practice toward the end of his career.

“He was a one-on-one type of person, you know, and I think that’s kind of why he decided to do what he did with the last years of his life,” Sullivan said. “He found the thing that made him happy.”

His daughter Madeleine said he served as an Air Force Medical Service Corps officer providing psychiatric service to Vietnam War returnees at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. In 1974, he started his private practice in Illinois and also provided services to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Bongiorno was hospitalized in mid-March and died after being on a ventilator for more than 20 days.

“I’ve probably got 30 or 40 emails from patients who found out, and they all pretty much say that he saved their life with his help and changed their lives,” his son Joseph Bongiorno Jr. said. “He never, ever, ever planned on retiring.”

— Ayse Eldes, University of Michigan

Felicia Ailende.

Felicia Ailende.

Courtesy of Elijah Ailende

Felicia Ailende: Nurse and minister tended to her patients, flock, garden

Age: 67

Occupation: Registered nurse

Place of work: Bria of Forest Edge, Chicago

Date of death: April 20, 2020

Felicia Ailende was a beacon to her family and members of Maranatha Chapel in Evergreen Park, where she was a minister. She counseled many, helping keep marriages intact and lives on track, her son Elijah Ailende said. Though her six children were very different from one another, she saw the best in each.

An immigrant from Nigeria, she planted a garden each year and used the produce to cook West African dishes. When there were too many cucumbers, hot peppers or greens, she shared with neighbors.

At the Bria of Forest Edge nursing home, Ailende cooked for residents at times or prayed for them, her son said.

Administrator Julie Kosman said Ailende was a hardworking nurse who was pleasant and funny and had a great rapport with residents.

As of June 2, she was one of three workers at the facility who had died of COVID-19; two residents also had died. The facility had reported 132 infections.

Elijah Ailende said staffers had to reuse surgical masks provided by the facility. Administrators did not tell them when residents and other staff members got the virus “so they could take precautions and safeguard their lives,” he said.

Kosman said “full PPE” — personal protective equipment — was available to staffers and that there is no reason to believe Ailende was exposed to COVID-19 “within our facility.” She “had no known contact with any resident or staff member who showed symptoms or had tested positive for COVID-19.”

— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News

Leola Grady and Howard Fox Jr., her son.

Leola Grady and Howard Fox Jr., her son.

Courtesy of Howard Fox Jr.

Leola Grady: She brought a ‘calming presence,’ fun to nursing home

Age: 59

Occupation: Recreational aide

Place of work: Bria of Forest Edge, Chicago

Date of death: April 10, 2020

Leola Grady had planned to be with her son and granddaughter in Mississippi for Mother’s Day but did not live to make the trip.

At the Bria of Forest Edge nursing home, she entertained residents, sometimes with a “good game of cards,” administrator Julie Kosman said. “She had a calming presence about her.”

When Grady fell ill, a nurse at the facility already was sick with the coronavirus. A nursing aide whose name has not been released also died of COVID-19. Staff at the facility, with SEIU union leaders, have said they were unaware their coworkers were dying until they saw it on the news.

Howard Fox Jr., Grady’s son, said his mother was his best friend — an honest, straightforward and loving person who enjoyed listening to the blues.

“I’m not going to sit here and sugarcoat it,” he said. “It hurts. … I look at our picture. I cry.”

Fox said his mother went to a Chicago hospital with COVID symptoms but was sent home. She was found dead several days later. A Cook County medical examiner’s spokesperson confirmed she died of pneumonia due to COVID-19.

Kosman said the facility does not believe Grady or the nurse, Felicia Ailende, “were exposed to COVID-19 within our facility.”

As of May 27, Bria of Forest Edge had reported 132 coronavirus cases and two deaths to Illinois officials. Kosman said it reported worker deaths to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which shows three pending death investigations at the facility.

— Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News

Maria Lopez.

Maria Lopez.

Courtesy of Maria Lopez.

Maria Lopez: Robotic surgery expert ‘just made everything fun’

Age: 63

Occupation: Registered nurse

Place of work: University of Illinois Hospital at Chicago

Date of death: May 4, 2020

“What lady? I don’t see a lady here.”

That was the sort of self-deprecating comment Maria Lopez would fire back when teased by a coworker about an etiquette faux pas in the operating room.

Lopez knew how to break the tension, said chief nurse anesthetist Mary Ann Zervakis Brent, a colleague since 2005. Lopez called everyone “amigo” or “amiga,” regardless of rank.

“She just made everything fun,” Zervakis Brent said.

Lopez was an expert in robotic surgery and trained others to use the equipment.

She taught her two daughters to be independent. The oldest of nine kids, Lopez fought her father’s expectation that she forgo college, said her daughter Maria, who was named for her.

Lopez’s symptoms appeared days after she returned to work from leave for knee surgery. She had planned to retire April 30.

In the hospital, Lopez tried to stay positive. Yet during one FaceTime call, her daughter said, “She just broke down. She said, ‘I wouldn’t want anyone I love going through what I’m going through right now.’ ”

A hospital official confirmed that Lopez died of complications of COVID-19.

— Mary Chris Jaklevic

Gabrail ‘Gabe’ Ismayl.

Gabrail ‘Gabe’ Ismayl.

Courtesy of Ismayl family

Gabrail ‘Gabe’ Ismayl: Always upbeat, patient transporter was a sewing wiz

Age: 62

Occupation: Patient transport worker

Place of work: Swedish Hospital, Chicago

Date of death: May 6, 2020

Caring, upbeat, always first to arrive at a party, Gabrail Ismayl loved an excuse to don a suit and splash on cologne.

That’s how Fidelline Youhanna remembers her uncle. “Everybody loved Gaby,” she said.

After migrating from Syria in the 1980s, Ismayl ran wholesale clothing shops on the North Side. He was a wiz with the sewing machine and enjoyed altering dresses, making curtains and doing creative projects for family and friends.

Later, his people skills were an asset as he wheeled patients where they needed to go.

As the pandemic took hold, Ismayl worked despite health conditions that elevated his risk, Youhanna said.

“I think he just liked his job,” she said. “He made a lot of friends there.”

On May 6, Ismayl was self-isolating in the basement of the house he shared with two sisters. He was short of breath, Youhanna said. By evening, he was dead.

Ismayl was employed by management services company Sodexo. The CEO of its health care division in North America, Catherine Tabaka, said his passing “is a tragic loss for Sodexo and we mourn an incredible friend and presence.”

— Mary Chris Jaklevic

Juan Martinez.

Juan Martinez.

Courtesy of the Martinez family.

Juan Martinez: Surgical technician taught his kids to be ‘faithful to your job’

Age: 60

Occupation: Surgical technician

Place of work: University of Illinois Hospital at Chicago

Date of death: April 27, 2020

It was easy to befriend Juan Martinez.

The surgical technician “could start a conversation up with anyone about anything,” said Jose Moreno, an operating room nurse and coworker.

He went out of his way to teach others what he’d learned from 34 years in the field, said his son Juan Martinez Jr., who followed his dad’s career path at the same hospital.

The military veteran and former church pastor set an example “to be faithful to your job,” his son said.

Due to retire April 30, Martinez anticipated spending time with his grandchildren, traveling and opening Bible education centers in Mexico, his family said.

After feeling tired and feverish, he went to be tested for COVID-19 on April 17. His symptoms were so severe that he was taken by ambulance to the hospital where he worked.

Family members said Martinez did not engage in direct patient care but came in contact with staffers who did.

Juan Martinez Jr. said that losing his dad has been like a nightmare and that he and his siblings are “leaning on the Lord and praying a lot, just like how our father taught us.”

— Mary Chris Jaklevic

Anjanette Miller.

Anjanette Miller.

Courtesy of Venus Donasco-Delfin.

Anjanette Miller: Nurse was living her dream of working in the United States

Age: 38

Occupation: Registered nurse

Place of work: Community First Medical Center and Kindred Chicago Lakeshore, Chicago, and Bridgeway Senior Living, Bensenville

Date of death: April 14, 2020

As a child, Anjanette Miller dreamed of becoming a nurse in the United States. She studied in her native Philippines and worked briefly in Saudi Arabia before fulfilling her wish in 2001.

Miller settled in Chicago and worked as a supervising nurse at three facilities. Her sister Venus Donasco-Delfin said Miller got along well with coworkers who shared her work ethic.

“At work, I think she was strict,” Donasco-Delfin said. “But, beyond work, she’s a great friend.”

One of five siblings, she was the “pillar of the family” and supported relatives back home.

“I studied psychology for two years,” Donasco-Delfin said, “but she kept calling me [in the Philippines] and said, ‘No, Venus. … You have to pursue nursing. You will make a difference.’ ”

Donasco-Delfin, now in Canada, became a nurse.

Miller started feeling sick in mid-March and was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early April. She self-isolated, chronicling her illness on YouTube and Facebook. She was hospitalized April 5 and died nine days later.

Miller had hoped to retire to the Philippines and pursue her other passion, filmmaking. Last year, she traveled back home to shoot scenes for a project.

“The movie she was making is about her life story,” Donasco-Delfin said. “But it’s not finished yet.”

— Danielle Renwick, The Guardian

This story is part of the “Lost on the Frontline” project from The Guardian and KHN documenting the lives of health care workers in the United States who die from COVID-19 and investigating why so many are victims of the disease. If you have colleagues or loved ones we should include, please share their story.

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