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Riverside nurses reflect on pandemic during 'Year of the Nurse'

KANKAKEE — In more than one way, 2020 is the Year of the Nurse.

The American Nurses Association has named 2020 “Year of the Nurse” in honor of what would be the 200th birthday of Florence Nightingale, who was considered to be the founder of modern nursing.

Even without the anniversary, 2020 has made it hard to ignore nurses’ contributions to communities.

LaTivia Carr, vice president of nursing and chief nursing officer at Riverside, stood outside the hospital’s emergency department Thursday with a group of nurses gathered for a photo in recognition of the special year.

“I believe that this year has really stood out as a year that nursing has risen to the challenge of providing care during this pandemic,” Carr said. “Our nurses make sacrifices every day, but this year they have gone the extra mile.”

One of the challenges for nurses this year has been that, like everyone else, they didn’t see COVID-19 coming, Carr said.

“While this is our work, we care for patients every day, what we didn’t plan for was this inundation of such a sick population of people,” she said.

Carr said Riverside planned and participated in celebrations throughout the year to highlight nurses’ work, including an honor guard ceremony and a first responders parade.

“To the community, these are the heroes,” Carr said. “While others were able to shelter-in-place at home, these nurses were on the front lines, face to face with COVID-19 addressing the pandemic.”

Diane McGrath, who has been a nurse since 1978, said she has never experienced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic in her more than 40 years as a nurse.

The only similar experience that comes to mind is the 1985 salmonella outbreak in Illinois caused by milk sold from a local store.

“Our pediatric hospital was jam packed,” McGrath recalled. “It was just non-stop. Parents and kids were upset, and it seemed like it was never going to end.”

She recalled back then how nurses worked long hours but pulled together nonetheless.

“Nursing, it’s not for the faint of heart,” she said. “It’s a team sport. At Riverside, we are a team, definitely.”

McGrath said she has been staying positive through the pandemic by finding time to decompress after work. It’s important to tune out news about the virus sometimes, she added.

“After a long day of eight or 10 hours, I’m not going to listen to MSNBC or whatever on the way home,” she said. “I’m going to put music on or whatever it takes for me to relax.”

Brad Boswell, a nurse for 10 years, said he is proud of the way his coworkers have adapted to the pandemic as a team.

He said the experience has made them more aware of their own safety and the safety of their patients.

“It’s a testimony to how important it is to consider the things you can’t see. When you’re talking about infection, that’s invisible,” Boswell said. “As nurses, we use our eyes so much when we are assessing our patients… but this is something different all together because you can’t see it.”

Heather Davis, a nurse at Riverside for 11 years, said that while this year has been unusual, the positive has been that nurses are thinking outside the box in terms of nursing practices and adapting to evolving guidance.

One challenge has been dealing with public perceptions of the pandemic and steering people away from unverified information to official sources such as the CDC, she said.

“I think a lot of times the public is very unsure of things,” Davis said. “They are getting a lot of information, so they are constantly asking questions based on things they are hearing from outside sources that may or may not be factual.”

Each time there is a disease outbreak, nurses come together to face it, Davis added.

Whitney Trevino, also a Riverside nurse for 11 years, added that while the unknowns of the pandemic have added some stress to the job, she has seen the nurses she works with adapt well to the pressure.

“Everyone has shined through it, actually,” Trevino said. “People here went above and beyond to take care of these patients.”

A Q&A with CSL's plant manager as his first year draws to an end

Starting with a new company, taking the controls of an expanding plant and relocating to the Midwest from Puerto Rico. Those were just three of the issues facing 56-year-old Jose Gonzalez when he walked through the doors on that first day as senior vice president and general manager of CSL Kankakee nearly one year ago.

Within a handful of months, however, Gonzalez — like the rest of the nation — was forced to navigate through a new set of issues. The leader of the Bourbonnais Township manufacturer of biotherapy medications was charged with guiding this plant and its workforce through the multitude of issues presented by the COVID-19 virus.

Developing partnerships with other companies to help develop a COVID-19 vaccine, continuing to produce CSL’s life-saving products and putting together the names to the faces of an expanding workforce — which now numbers 1,800 — only added to the tasks facing Gonzalez.

But no one could have anticipated what took place only months after taking the helm of the massive 138-acre complex near the intersection of Illinois Route 50 and Armour Road.

Gonzalez joined CSL from Amgen, where he served as executive director and plant manager for drug products at the facility in Juncos, Puerto Rico. Prior to Amgen, he held manufacturing and engineering roles at Covidien, Johnson & Johnson, Hewlett-Packard and W.R. Grace.

He and his wife, Mimi, are parents to three grown children.

Gonzalez, who now resides in unincorporated Kankakee — a far cry from landscape and climate of Puerto Rico — sat down for a nearly 90-minute interview with the Daily Journal and discussed his first year at the plant, COVID-19, the CSL workforce and his impressions of Kankakee County.

How would you describe your first year at CSL Behring?

“It’s been extremely challenging,” he said, “but rewarding at the same time. We have the opportunity to transform the entire site ... but not just the site, but also the operation. That makes this a challenge, but I like a challenge.

“... I’m here to make decisions for the best of the site, but not just for the Kankakee site, but for the best of the company as well.”

And with each decision he and plant leadership make, Gonzalez said, their goal is to improve outcomes for the patients, the company and the site. This is a different model for CSL.

“CSL locations had very much been an island. Decisions were made to look out for the island rather than the entire network.”

What goes through your mind as you travel to work each day?

“The biggest thing that goes through my mind are the hundreds of families who depend on this operation and the millions of patients who depend on our products. That’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.

“I can be tough to keep your mind straight, to concentrate. CSL has a good set of values. Not too many companies have that.”

He said he also thinks of how fortunate he is to be given the opportunity to work for CSL and live in a community like Kankakee County.

Would it be fair to say you have had a baptism by fire as you near the end of your first year?

“Yes. You could say that. Definitely. But that’s expected with this kind of job. The key is to be ready to manage the process.

“Deep down I knew what I was getting into. I was very happy where I was at. I had to be willing to get out of my comfort zone to advance. I’ve had a good career, but I’m having more fun now. I knew what I was getting into. COVID-19 has not helped that stress in any way, shape or form.

“... People were nervous when that first positive case happened here. But we followed our strategy. We followed our process.”

Gonzalez said he has yet to miss a day of work. He believes it’s good that people see that happening from those in leadership. He tries to walk through the plant daily — something he does as much for himself as the workers.

“If I don’t get around, it drives me nuts.”

Describe your style of leadership?

“Servant leader. I think of myself as being at the bottom on an inverted pyramid. I’m at the bottom so I can help support everyone else. I want to tell people ‘you are not here to work for me. I’m here to work for you.’ My job is to support the hands that make this product.

“But being a servant is easier said than done. People are not use to that concept.”

Since September, what three things have you learned about the CSL workforce?

“Dedication, loyalty and resiliency. I see it every day. The people here are passionate about what they do. They have great loyalty to the company. This past year hasn’t been easy for me, but it has certainly not been easy for them as well.”

What have you learned about yourself?

“That I’ve been able to get out of my comfort zone. I’m glad I did. I realized I have a lot of tools in my toolbox. Sometimes we underestimate what we have lived through and we can pull those tools out.”

COVID-19 has been a terrible illness, but what opportunities has it provided to CSL?

“In our respiratory area and influenza therapies, it has created opportunities. COVID attacks respiratory capabilities, so in that sense it has been good for our respiratory portfolio. The demand of influenza products has increased and that likely will continue for the foreseeable future.

“... We are working in collaboration with companies who are our competitors in the quest for a therapy against the virus and its impact on patients. CSL is involved in a number of efforts worldwide to respond to this pandemic and be part of the solution. The need for our products hasn’t gone down, COVID or no COVID. We still have to ensure our supply of medications.”

How stressful is it to maintain a proper work environment with these outside forces at play?

“Very stressful. The demand for our products does not go down despite everything going on. Patients need these therapies to live. That’s another brick on our shoulder. How do you tell a patient we don’t have your product?”

What are your impressions of Kankakee County — good and bad?

“It’s a good place to live and raise a family. Many of our new hires are considering Kankakee County as a place to live. I share the belief that we should live close to our operation.”

Regarding the bad impression, Gonzalez said the county doesn’t show itself well to those outside its boundaries.

“I’ve noticed people from outside don’t have much good to say about Kankakee County. We need to work on that.” Gonzalez would like to see a group representing the region’s large employers come together and bring government leaders with them to work together to improve the region’s shortcomings and well as its image.

“We want to make this place attractive for people to come here.”

In terms of plant expansion, where is CSL in this process?

“This is my most common question. Regarding the expansion vision, some plans have changed,” he said, without offering specifics.

“We are always looking at what we are doing. We want to slow down on some things and speed up on others. We are taking the time to ensure our long-term success of CSL and Kankakee County. We are heavily committed to Kankakee. The Kankakee plant is a key to the success of the CSL network.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many aspects of the business. Circumstances are continuously changing.

“Since circumstances are ever-changing, the situation and impact on business may change. ... Our mission is to serve patients, but we have to run a business to do that.”

Midland States Bank to close 13 branches

Midland States Bank announced late Thursday that it will close or consolidate 13 branches, or 20% of its branch network, by the end of the year.

The network has two branches in Bourbonnais (680 S. Main St. and 576 William Latham Drive), two in Bradley (980 N. Kinzie Ave. and 435 E. North St.) and one in Kankakee (255 E. Station St.), as well as locations in Beecher, Grant Park, Herscher, Manteno and Momence.

A news release from the company didn’t indicate which branches would be affected. Jeff Mefford, executive vice president for community banking for Midland, said in an email Friday that updated information on the closings would be released next week.

Midland will also vacate approximately 23,000 square feet of corporate office space by the end of 2020, and it estimates that the branch and corporate office reductions will result in annual cost savings of approximately $5 million, according to the news release.

In addition, Midland plans to renovate and upgrade five other branches to reduce the size to better serve retail and commercial customers. Those renovations and upgrades are expected to cost approximately $4 million. It estimates the changes will result in annual savings of approximately $1 million beginning in 2022.

“The actions announced [Thursday] reflect our ongoing efforts to evaluate all aspects of our operations for opportunities to enhance efficiencies,” President and CEO Jeffrey G. Ludwig said in the news release. “The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift toward digital banking and reduced the need for several of our smaller branches. Given the proximity of other branches, we believe that these adjustments to our branch network will have a minimal impact on our ability to provide customers with a convenient location to do their in-person banking.”

Midland States Bancorp, parent of Midland States Bank, completed its purchase of Homestar Bank and Financial Services in July 2019. The Homestar branches were converted to Midland States Bank in October of last year.

Midland purchased the former Centrue Bank in 2017.