Retired Rush Nurses Return as Volunteer Vaccinators

Nearly a dozen retirees donate time and skill to administer COVID-19 vaccine
Retired nurse Paula Dillon at the vaccine clinic

Seven years after she retired from Rush University Medical Center, Paula Dillon, RN, MS, is back on campus volunteering 12 hours a week at the Medical Center’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic.

Formerly associate vice president of clinical nursing, Dillon has been helping out throughout the pandemic, starting when Rush needed volunteers for COVID-19 testing during the first and second surges, and now helping in the vaccine clinic. She is among nearly a dozen retired Rush nurses who are donating not only their time but also their skills and decades of experience to help inoculate hundreds of people a day.

Once a nurse, always a nurse

Although Dillon was enjoying her retirement spending time with friends and taking enrichment courses in science, culture and literature, she saw the need to step up during the pandemic.

“We are all in this together, and everyone has to help pull us out of this situation,” Dillon says. “And when you know that the staff nurses and people in the clinics are working so long and doing so much, you care about them. You want them to feel supported.”

Dillon says the process for volunteering was made easier by the Senior Nurse Engagement Council, which was created by Rush’s Professional Nursing Staff to support retirees. While the council was still getting underway when the pandemic hit, it had formed a registry of retired nurses interested in volunteering.

Ellen Elpern, RN, MSN, who spent her career in pulmonary and critical care nursing at Rush before retiring in 2011, proposed the creation of the council to Angelique Richard, PhD, RN, senior vice president of hospital operations and chief nursing officer for Rush University System for Health and Rush University Medical Center, as a way to empower and encourage retired nurses to volunteer. 

“We formed the council because our retired nurses have a wealth of knowledge, experience, expertise and commitment to patient care and nursing that they have to share,” Richard says. “We are thankful for their dedication. ‘Once a Rush nurse, always a Rush nurse!’ " 

Pandemic inspires call to action

Elpern was one of the first Rush retirees to volunteer at the Medical Center last spring. For more than two months, Elpern helped the intensive care unit’s proning team, which worked together to carefully place COVID-19 patients on their chests to help them breathe. After the need for that team’s worked slowed, she joined Dillon and other volunteers in helping with COVID-19 testing.

Now Elpern is volunteering about 15 hours a week in the vaccine clinic. Like Dillon, she kept her nursing license current and was brought on board by the Medical Center’s Volunteer Services office.

“I look forward to volunteering at Rush every time,” Elpern says. “There are a lot of physical and mental health benefits to volunteering – even outside the pandemic. It fosters a sense of community and great personal satisfaction.”

While helping in the vaccine clinic, they sometimes get to see other retired nurse volunteers, among them Lynne Braun, PhD, CNP; Beth-Anne Christopher, MS, RN; Diane Gallagher, DNP, RN, NEA-BC; Mary Johnson, PhD, RN; and Judith O’Keefe, RN.

A culture of caring and commitment to service

Having retired registered nurses ready and eager to volunteer has been a godsend, according to Patty Nedved, RN, MSN, associate vice president for clinical transformation. 

“We couldn’t do this without them, and we appreciate their expertise and experience,” she says. “The people who knew them love to see them, too.”

Rush’s COVID-19 vaccine clinic operates four days a week in the Medical Center’s Edward A. Brennan Entry Pavilion, where 17 bays are set up to vaccinate as many as 1,700 people a day. About 80 staff and volunteers are needed each day to cover the clinic’s three shifts, which last four to five hours each, and about as many are needed to staff a special weekly off-site clinic.

While Erin Provagna, an administrative fellow, coordinates non-clinical volunteers, Nedved manages the clinic’s operations and clinical staffing, ensuring enough pharmacists, nurses, advanced practice providers and doctors are scheduled to prepare and administer the vaccine and to observe patients after they’re inoculated.

The vaccine clinic relies mainly on volunteers, including employees helping in their free time or after their workday.

“The Rush team devotes hundreds of hours to volunteer in the vaccine clinic every week,” Kerem Korkmaz, MSN, RN, CENP, vice president, patient care services and Rush vaccine operations administrator. “The response we’ve seen from our clinical and non-clinical teams has been inspiring. They are absolutely essential, and their willingness to be a part of this effort to stop COVID-19 demonstrates how connected to the Rush culture, mission and values our employees truly are.”

That sense of commitment is no surprise to Dillon, who retired from Rush in January 2014.

“I am so impressed by these people who are working full time, and they come in on a Saturday and give four hours of their time,” she says.

Like Elpern, Dillon finds joy in her volunteer work. 

“Every day you meet someone who is a little special,” she says. “I had forgotten how nice it is to have a conversation with a patient, and even though it’s very short, that connection is very rewarding.”

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