Christina Wagener ’98

It is 7 a.m. on a Tuesday in early April, and Chicago Nurse Practitioner Christina Wagener, ’98, finishes her shift, slips into her small, black car, and drives the short distance home. Behind the wheel, she replays the non-stop action of her workday in the emergency department of a major hospital.

Things are different now. A new normal, as she calls it, but there are still things that get to her.

“I miss hugs,” she said. “I used to hug my regular patients and my friends at work. Now, the lack of human touch is devastating. Not being able to hold a patient’s hand or put my hand on their shoulder—it’s all so hard to handle.”

Wagener is one of the millions of healthcare workers around the world whose daily work has intensified over the last several weeks, due to the local COVID-19 outbreak. She normally works in an administrative role for the hospital, while also seeing patients in wound care. In March, she was redeployed to work nights in the emergency department.

“I have to wear a mask all day, no matter what I am doing,” Wagener said. “The risks of exposing myself and my husband to the virus is something I fear. I wash my hands about 30,000 times a day. I cannot touch my face at work and try not to eat or drink, if at all possible. I have asthma and anytime I cough, I am afraid. Did I get the virus? Am I transmitting it? Do I have a fever? I watch my friends and fellow staff get sick and I become nervous for myself and for all others that I work with. But I put all of this fear out of my mind because I know that my work and the patients need me.”

Each night in the Emergency Department, Wagener goes through the same protective precautions. She changes into scrubs in her office each evening, covering her hair, putting on her mask and changing her shoes. When she is finished with her eight-hour shift, she takes her protective gear and clothing off, leaves it in her office and puts her “home” clothes on again.

Before the pandemic, after a long day of work, Wagener would have let off steam with some social time. She enjoyed a book club with friends and being a part of the Windy City Rollers roller derby league. For the near future, however, she will stay away from friends and family, as she poses a risk to them.

Nowadays, time off feels very different. As Wagener enters her apartment, she is greeted by her husband, NIU alumnus and former U.S. Marine Jim Wagener, ’99, and their three cats, Jasper, Pickles and Jack.

“When I get home, I shower and try and keep my work and my home separate,” she said. “I find that my stress level is lower when I am at work. When I am at home and watching constant news updates and alerts, I find that I am much more anxious.”

Wagener is no stranger to hard work. After receiving her bachelor’s in marketing from NIU in 1998, she earned her master’s in nursing from DePaul University, and her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and M.B.A. from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She switched careers to go into healthcare after a nurse made a positive difference in her life.

“I did not always know that I wanted to be a nurse, but in 2004, my father passed away and there was an amazing ICU nurse that treated him and, frankly, our family,” she said. “She helped us through a stressful time and allowed us to spend quality time with him and to focus on the present. Experiencing that changed my life and made me change my career entirely.”

As a former marine, Wagener’s husband is proud of his wife’s “running into the fire and not away from it,” but not everyone in her life agrees with her decisions. Now relaxing on the couch, Wagener answers a phone call from her mother, who is always worrying for her daughter and reminding her that she has pre-existing asthma risks.

Wagener urges people who want to support healthcare workers to simply stay at home and only come to the emergency department in cases of true emergencies. Still, she wonders if as many people will want to become nurses, doctors and respiratory therapists in the future after watching scores of healthcare workers die while performing their regular daily jobs.

“Healthcare has traditionally been the ‘recession-proof’ job. But now the secret is out that you can risk your health being a healthcare worker,” she said.

Still, amid fear, risk and death, Wagener never wavers in her drive to serve patients.

“I will not quit. I feel tired, I am sometimes exhausted and cranky, and I am sure my husband has had just about enough of me sometimes, but I would never quit,” she said. “I love this job with a passion that doesn’t even make me feel like I am working. It is the best job in the world. Last week, I watched a baby being born… I haven’t seen that in years. It was amazing.”

“In all this turmoil and stress, to hear in absolute silence the first cries of a new life, and to be a part of that in the wake of absolute tragedy, makes it all worth it.”