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Nursing assistant helps care for victims of Chicago violence: ‘My patients are definitely the best part of my job’

Clarise Evans sees the impact of Chicago’s gun violence on a daily basis. She’s now pushing for higher wages at her hospital.

While Chicago’s high number of gun-related murders get nationwide attention, the thousands of victims who survive shootings every year often get overlooked.

But Clarise Evans is confronted by the physical and mental toll that gun violence takes on the living on a daily basis.

As a certified nursing assistant in the traumatic brain injury (TBIs) unit at Mount Sinai Hospital — one of five local Level 1 trauma centers in Chicago — she’s a 19-year veteran of a team that regularly treats people whose lives are forever altered by a bullet to the head. Gunshot wounds that penetrate the brain often lead to crippling and lifelong physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities that leave victims dependent and needing extra care.

“It’s hard,” said Evans, 52, of Garfield Park. “You’re dealing with people that suddenly have brain damage and in many cases have trouble with basic functions — the kind that many of us take for granted.”

The job consists of checking vital signs, setting up meals and helping patients take showers, brush teeth, comb hair. She also has to monitor those who try to leave their beds or the facility because they’re scared or confused.

“A lot of times we have to comfort them like a mother’s nurturing,” she said. “It’s a lot of nurturing.”

Love Begets Love

Nursing those with severe brain injuries is a difficult line of work that Evans — who graduated from Harold Washington College in 1998 — was inspired to pursue almost four decades ago. As a 14-year-old growing up on the South Side, she and her five sisters decided to take care of their mother dying of brain cancer.

In the end, that experience instilled a love for treating others in their most difficult moments. “If it wouldn’t have been for caring for my mom and watching her pass the way she did, I wouldn’t have the love to do what I do,” she said.

There are times when the love she has for her patients is reciprocated. Last Saturday, she attended the wedding of a man hospitalized at Mt. Sinai three years ago for a severe gunshot wound that nearly killed him.

Over a three-week period of treatment and rehabilitation, the patient recuperated almost fully. He’s turned his life around since then, says Evans, and has a new job and a baby on the way.

“He says to me, ‘You’re the reason I’m here today,’” said Evans with tears welling up in her eyes. “My patients are definitely the best part of my job.”

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Seeking a new contract

Over the past week, Evans’ voice has become hoarse from expressing her loud dissatisfaction with what she sees as the worst part of the job: compensation.

Earlier this month, she and 400 of her co-workers represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois —including CNAs, clerical, service and maintenance workers — rallied to announce they’d voted to authorize a strike if their demands weren’t met. SEIU spokesman James Muhammad describes Evans as a “valuable leader.”

They’ve been working without a contract since June and are asking for an increase in what union leaders describe as “poverty-level wages,” better health insurance and adequate staffing levels.

The average hourly pay for a CNA in Chicago is $12.50, according to Payscale.com, and a big chunk of their paychecks goes toward paying for health insurance. Evans says the $300 a month she spends on health coverage is too steep.

“When I had to take my son to the ER where I work, I had to pay a $250 co-pay,” said Evans, a shop steward with SEIU.

Dan Regan, a spokesman from Mount Sinai, declined to comment but emailed the Sun-Times a statement saying: “We remain confident we will reach resolution on a final contract in the near future.”

Muhammad, who describes Evans as a “valuable leader” in her union, says the hospital should show it values those employees.

“The first people [patients] see when they walk to the door is probably a CNA. Where’s the respect for those kinds of workers?”