She couldn’t save her father from COVID-19, but this nurse hopes to save others

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Fact vs. fiction: What you need to know about COVID-19 vaccine

CHICAGO – Every night for the past few months, Noemy Godina has cried for her father.

“I’m sorry I failed you,” she tells him, over and over, though only in her mind. “I’m sorry I didn’t say ‘I love you’ enough.”

And over and over, she tells herself: “I’m a nurse. I should have done better.”

Eventually she goes to sleep, then in the mornings she goes to work, fortified by the thought that even though she couldn’t save her father from COVID-19, she may save someone else’s.

Her drive from the Far Southeast Side to the Cook County health department’s North Riverside clinic takes over an hour. She doesn’t mind. She has always loved her job, but she loves it even more now that the clinic, in a strip mall on busy South Harlem Avenue, doubles as a vaccination site.

In the clean, no-frills clinic, she spends a lot of time transferring COVID-19 vaccine from small vials into syringes, a procedure that is both simple and hard: Draw saline into the syringe. Then plunge the needle into the vaccine vial. As the vaccine drips into the syringe, tap the syringe with a fingernail however many times it takes to eliminate the air bubbles.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

Six syringes per vaccine vial. Thousands of taps per hour. Godina has tapped so much that at times her fingers are left swollen and bruised.

“Sometimes we ice them when we get home,” she said the other day, tapping away along with three other nurses in a small, windowless, white-walled room that sounded as if it were filled with woodpeckers. The nurses fixed their gazes on the clear, slender tubes, sometimes holding them to the light, squinting in search of bubbles.

“By the time we’re done,” Godina said, “we’re cross-eyed.”

Noemy Godina, 45, a nurse at Cook County Health North Riverside Health Center, draws up a syringe of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on March 17, 2021.  (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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She wasn’t complaining. It makes her happy to think that every syringe full of vaccine and free of bubbles — the bubbles take up space, reducing the dose — represents someone less likely to end up like her dad.

Godina’s father, Ignacio Godina, was an auto body repairman who emigrated from Zacatecas, Mexico, to Chicago with her mother, Ofelia, shortly before Godina was born. Her mother’s entire sibling group — 10 kids in all — emigrated too, coming to join their father, who worked in a steel mill.

Ignacio and Ofelia went on to have four kids, and took pride in raising two electricians, a teacher and a nurse.

Godina’s father was in some ways, she says, a “hard man.” Proud. He had a temper. Wasn’t a hugger. But family was his life, and he often said, “I love you.”

When COVID hit, her parents took precautions. They left the house only for daily visits to Godina’s grandfather, making sure he was bathed and fed. Her father always double-masked. But last October, both her parents began feeling sick.

“I think they were afraid to tell me they were not feeling well,” Godina says. They let her know on a Wednesday. Two days later, she insisted they go to the hospital, trailing them in her car because her dad refused to let her ride in theirs, afraid he would infect her.

“OK, Dad,” she told him in the parking lot outside the hospital, “Don’t forget your insurance card.”

If she’d known it was the last in-person conversation she’d have with her father, she would have told him she loved him.

To this day, Godina doesn’t know how her parents caught the virus, or how any of the 11 members of her extended family who got sick did. Her best guess is that some of them met after her grandfather died in September, at 96, of simple old age. Maybe, she thinks, someone consoled her dad with a hug.

Her mother didn’t have to stay in the hospital, but her father did. No visitors allowed. It was the first time in his life he had been away from family, and he wanted to come home.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” she told him on one of their FaceTime calls, “you just have to be there a few more days.” She had trouble understanding him over the loud hospital machines.

Shortly after that call, Ignacio Godina, who was 67, had a bout of violent delirium and was put into a forced coma. Two weeks after he entered the hospital, his daughter made the decision to remove him from the ventilator. The decision had fallen to her because, after all, she was the nurse in the family.

Everyone assures Godina that she did everything she could. The virus is cruel and capricious. Nurses aren’t magicians. She takes consolation in the fact that her mother has survived. But her mother, who used to work helping elderly people in their homes, still feels COVID’s effects, notably back pain and shortness of breath, and has had to quit her job, yet another loss in the cascade of losses.

And Godina can’t shake the feeling that she could have, should have done more for her father. What she can do now is help others avoid her father’s suffering, and her family’s. She takes that mission seriously.

At the clinic, where many of the patients are Hispanic, she has become a COVID counselor of sorts, explaining to people why they should get the vaccine. People call or come in, full of questions and worries, often based on rumors from neighbors. No, she explains kindly, in response to the most common fear, the shot won’t give them the virus.

Since January, the clinic has administered 12,000 vaccinations. Three hundred fifty on an average weekday, up to 600 on a weekend day. After each dose is prepared, it’s slipped into a small brown bag labeled with the date, the time diluted and the “use-by” time six hours later. Godina goes out of her way to say she is grateful for co-workers who care so much about getting people vaccinated, who care so much about why it matters to her.

And every now and then, as she stands tapping at syringes, Godina gets an extra dose out of a vaccine vial. A miraculous seventh that arrives like a gift from her father.

“Oh, Daddy,” she thinks. “Thank you. That’s an extra life you can help save today. That’s someone else who will get a Father’s Day.”