Two local Certified Nursing Assistants have been fighting on the front lines of Illinois’ battle against the COVID-19 pandemic since the end of March.

Taylor Flowers of Mason and Kayla Summann of Altamont, both 23, were to spend eight weeks in Chicago helping hospitals and medical facilities care for COVID-19 patients. Cook County has amassed the state’s greatest number of cases and deaths, with 31,953 cases and 1,347 deaths reported at the end of April.

By late April, Flowers and Summann were relocated to aid virus patients in Kankakee, which is located an hour south of Chicago and roughly 155 miles north of Effingham County. As of the end of April, Kankakee County had 309 confirmed cases with 73 recovered and 23 deaths.

Flowers and Summann returned home in the final week of May.

Flowers and Summann answered a request from a Chicago-based health care company to send health care workers to the northern part of the state to aid health care workers who were facing an unprecedented influx of patients due to the virus. State officials at the end of March even sent an alert to mobile devices seeking medically trained individuals to fight the spread of the virus.

Flowers described her decision to fight the virus on the front lines as the right thing to do.

“It was a calling, and we haven’t looked back,” Flowers said.

“I wanted to make a difference and be part of something good for the community; also, it will help build experience for nursing school,” Summann added.

The CNAs said they mainly worked with patients who were suffering from acute respiratory infection because of COVID-19. Summann hoped she and Flowers helped to ensure more patients were taken care of because helping others is the duo’s main goal.

They saw many patients with varying degrees and symptoms of COVID-19. Flowers said some of their co-workers in Kankakee have been diagnosed with the virus.

Flowers said seeing the onslaught of what COVID-19 can do has been an eye-opening experience. She said the more densely populated areas she and Summann worked in seemed to have had a more rapid spread of the virus than their hometowns.

“A big eye-opener for us is that our small town doesn’t have it as much as this area does. This area is more populated than ours, and it has affected them a lot,” Flowers said. “It is also an eye opener of how rapidly it can spread. It can affect people, and they might not know it, so it spreads to the next person.”

Summann and Flowers felt they were making a difference not only for the patients they treated but also the people they worked with. Flowers said they’ve helped fill in when medical staff were out sick or the staff was shorthanded.

Flowers said a plus to working in both Chicago and Kankakee has been the people they have met and formed bonds with along the way.

Neither Summann or Flowers have had experience working outside of geriatric care in nursing homes. Flowers has been a CNA for six years, and Summann has been one for five years.

The two stayed in a hotel for nearly two months while they worked in the northern part of the state, paid for by their employer. They had been working 12-hour day shifts in Chicago and in Kankakee. Though they slept in the same hotel in Kankakee, Flowers and Summann rarely saw each other as their schedules differed.

The CNAs received a few days off in early May but went right back to work once those days ended.

A typical work day for Summann and Flowers on the front lines began at 4:30 a.m., when the two got ready for work, ate breakfast then headed to the site on a bus. When they arrived at the medical center, they would check in and begin their 12-hour shifts.

Flowers said she and Summann routinely checked on the COVID-19 patients and performed daily tasks such as checking vitals.

A bus took them back to their hotel where they would eat, rest and start all over again the next day. Flowers and Summann donned personal protective equipment for the majority of their work days, including trips to and from their work site.

“We have been wearing PPE for 12 hours a day and masks for about 14 or more hours a day between bus rides and getting supper,” Flowers said.

Flowers and Summann departed Effingham County on March 31. They agreed it was hard to leave their families, but their loved ones were nothing but supportive of their new venture.

“My family was super-encouraging. My boyfriend Kevin was my ultimate supporter and pushed me to go,” Flowers said.

Summann’s children and fiancé were understanding of her desire to join health care workers in northern Illinois. She said her family agreed it was the best move for her career, and though they were worried for her health and safety, Summann said her family shared words of encouragement.

Throughout their stays in Chicago and Kankakee, their families have checked in with them daily, helping Flowers and Summann cope with the distance between them and their loved ones.

The CNAs are no strangers to helping others and say it is at the core of their initial decision to become CNAs, as well as choosing to aid medical workers elsewhere in the state. Flowers said going to care for COVID-19 patients was what the two were meant to do in the time of the pandemic.

“We both felt that we were being pulled in this direction, like we were meant to be coming here,” Flowers said prior to their March departure.

Working through a pandemic was a little less stressful for the CNAs thanks to support and encouragement from their home communities.

Flowers said though she and Summann haven’t been able to reach back out to all who have shared words of encouragement, they want their fellow community members to know how much their love and support has meant to them.

The two were also especially grateful for the bus drivers who drove them to and from their work site. The drivers went as far as making a sign that read “We drive heroes,” displayed on the sides of the buses.

Summann and Flowers were also thankful for Ashley Towler and Justin Harrison who live in their hometowns. Towler provided caps to protect the CNAs’ hair, and Harrison supplied ear protectors.

Flowers said being able to help those most in need during the pandemic is something she and Summann will never forget.

“The journey definitely wasn’t what we thought it would be, but we are still glad we came,” Flowers said.

Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.

Kaitlin Cordes can be reached at kaitlin.cordes@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 132.

Reporter

Kaitlin Cordes covers Effingham County, police and courts and sports features for the Effingham Daily News. She earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University. Cordes is a native of Effingham.

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