During the COVID-19 pandemic, Martha Kuhr, RN (center), came out of retirement to care for some of Rush University Medical Center's most severe COVID-19 patients in the CVICU. (Due to strict social distancing guidelines, this group quickly dispersed after the photo was taken.)
Retirement usually means years of vacations and relaxation. A time to kick up your feet and celebrate decades of hard work. But for one nurse, retirement didn’t last for long.
Martha Kuhr, RN, retired from Rush University Medical Center in 2018 and never thought she would return to an intensive care unit, a workplace she had grown to love over the past four decades. But when the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head, she knew her knowledge and skills were needed more than ever.
After graduating from Rush University in 1984, Kuhr spent her entire career at the Medical Center. Knowing she wanted to work in an intensive care unit, she accepted a position working bedside in the surgical intensive care unit (SICU) the minute it was offered.
For more than 30 years, Kuhr worked in the Medical Center’s SICU, now known as the cardioscience intensive care unit (CVICU). “I stayed around because I liked the environment. It was face-paced,” Kuhr explains. “When I started, we cared for a wide variety of patients: cardiac, general surgery, even pediatric cardiac surgery.”
Kuhr loved her job, but when offered an early retirement in 2018, it was too good to pass up. She began to adjust into a retired life, which included taking road cycling trips with her husband.
“My husband and I love to bike,” she says. “We’ve been to Europe, New Zealand, Canada and so many different places in the United States.”
‘I didn’t want to waste my skills’
In March 2020, Kuhr had just returned home to Lombard, Illinois, after a vacation in Arizona. As COVID-19 began to spread across the United States, she knew she needed to be back in the Medical Center’s CVICU. Because of her love and respect for her colleagues, she couldn’t let them go through this alone.
Before the pandemic, the CVICU treated cardiac medical and cardiac surgical patients and included patients on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). When the Medical Center started using ECMO as a way treat those with severe COVID-19, the CVICU became the unit where the sickest patients with COVID-19 received care.
“I could have volunteered to help with COVID-19 testing,” Kuhr says. “But I felt a strong call to go back. I didn’t want to waste my skills, I wanted to be with my colleagues and friends and be in the fight, not just sit on my hands.”
While she didn’t know if it was even possible to come back, she knew she had to try. Kuhr started making phone calls to colleagues who still worked in the CVICU, saying she would come back and do whatever the unit needed help with.
I could have volunteered to help with COVID-19 testing. But I felt a strong call to go back. I didn’t want to waste my skills, I wanted to be with my colleagues and friends and be in the fight, not just sit on my hands.
When she received an email from Rush asking retired nurses to come back and help with the Medical Center’s COVID-19 response. Kuhr signed up immediately. On June 8, she returned to the CVICU, rejoining her friends caring for those battling the deadly disease.
‘Nursing is a calling, it’s not a cliché’
Coming back to the CVICU during the pandemic was a vivid experience for Kuhr. “It not a pretty disease,” she explains. “It’s a long slow slog back to some kind of health, if you have bad enough symptoms.”
Witnessing severe COVID-19 patients was hard, and seeing patients struggling to recover without the in-person support of family and friends was tough to watch. It also is one of the situations where nurses have played a vital role.
Throughout the pandemic, nurses throughout the Medical Center have been at the bedside of patients who couldn’t have visitors. These nurses were not only providing medical care but also were giving them emotional and mental support that no one else was able to offer. Without the work of Kuhr and so many more nurses just like her, Rush would been able to fully care for patients and put them on a path to recovery.
“Nursing is a calling, it’s not a cliché,” Kuhr says. “You either hear the call or you don’t. You either love it or you don’t, it isn’t for everybody.”
Kuhr’s last day in CVICU was on Friday, April 23, nearly a year after she returned. Kuhr felt it was the right time to enter back into retirement as the COVID-19 vaccine was being distributed to more patients and the hospitalization rate of COVID-19 patients was slowing down. She was surrounded by new colleagues and those she had known for more than 20 years as they celebrated her “re-retirement.”
While Kuhr says this was her final time working at Rush, her work as a medical professional is never done. She continues to educate those around her about COVID-19 and its severity and is not afraid to debunk any myths or rumors she hears others spreading. Kuhr is using her experience in the CVICU to provide examples for people to not only to take the disease seriously but also to get vaccinated for COVID-19 to protecting themselves and their community.
Looking back at her 34-year career and her work during the pandemic, the words hard and satisfying come to mind.
“If you are drawn to helping people get better, going to battles alongside your fellow nurses, and are willing to see some bad things, some ugly things and get through it, it can be very satisfying,“ she says