Sixth grade human biology class. That’s when she knew. Ann Cheverton’s destiny was laid out before her, as clear as the brightly colored musculoskeletal system chart taped to the blackboard. She was going to take care of people.
There was nobody in Ann’s immediate or extended family with a medical or caregiving background. Not even a nurse as a neighbor. It was just in her.
Ann stayed true to her inner calling, exiting her professional training as a registered nurse in England. In the late 80s, Ann crossed the Atlantic and settled in the suburbs of Chicago, working as an oncology, bone marrow transplant nurse.
“I wanted to save everybody,” Ann said. “I was on the acute side of oncology. The high-tech side.”
That drive to save lives and evolve with the field led Ann to branch out into mental health, pharmacy, home health, hospice and population health. It’s like a magic bag of experience.
Know what’s even more magic? Curiosity. Ann has this deep, science-y, investigative type of curiosity. It’s what led her to join a clinician network through the CDC years ago.
“When the Ebola virus hit in 2013, I had a real eagerness to learn all I could,” Ann said.
She studied news and breaking trends about the virus coming through those CDC resources. Information not available to the general public. Those same sources gave Ann insight to the coronavirus pandemic well before the news brought much of the U.S. to a halt in mid-March of 2020.
As the lead expert for a staff of nurses across 63 assisted living facilities, it was time for Ann to draw on every single device in her magic bag. Fortunately for the staff and residents at Bickford, many of the practices that would keep the coronavirus outside their walls were already happening inside.
“I put a flu prevention program in place at Bickford shortly after I arrived,” Ann said. “We began rigorous infection control practices. We educated staff and residents. And we tracked.”
It worked. Prior to that program, influenza claimed the lives of 25 residents across their facilities in a year. The following year, with the program in place, there was a single death.
The coronavirus has been unprecedented, hard to predict, devastating. But it sure met it’s match with Ann Cheverton. Their staff and facilities already had a foundation for battling an unseen enemy. Now they just upped the ante. Gloves, masks, higher levels of disinfection, social distancing.
Ann is steely and sure. A woman who won’t flinch under pressure. The one you want in charge in times when there’s no rule book. But surely even she had fears when the pandemic struck and threatened all the things she worked so hard to protect. Right?
“Early on, nursing homes were getting the attention of the government,” Ann said. “The assisted living arena wasn’t considered a vulnerable population.”
But Ann knew better. So she started to ready her staff and sites for battle. On March 3, 2020, she reached out to a supplier and found out the government had taken away their access to personal protective equipment.
“I had no access through our usual channels to protect our staff or residents,” Ann said. “Not having a full complement of supplies was devasting. We have 63 branches. I immediately started to think ‘where is the stash?’”
Nursing staff at all locations were instructed to lock down their PPE supplies so they wouldn’t disappear. Ann organized a team to start inventorying supplies at all locations. Get control of the supply. Preserve what they had. Protect their own.
In late August, 2020, Ann said about five percent of the Bickford residents had contracted COVID-19.
“The first death was very devastating to me,” Ann said in a husky tone. The steeliness is gone. That instinct to save…the one that bloomed inside 11-year-old Ann…is now overcome with the grief of life lost. She takes a minute. But a minute isn’t enough. She continues to dab her eyes as we return to conversation.
Ann is a warrior, but a tired one. She’s been in full-on fight mode for six months by now.
“My life became the virus early on and it still is,” Ann said. “That meant long days, not much sleep. I’d wake up with ideas and thoughts on how to really hold up these branches and staff members. When you’re on heightened awareness, you’re constantly in tune. You don’t know how to take a step back.”
The work was all-consuming. Ann didn’t have the time or energy to do the things that gave her a respite at home — gardening, cooking, long walks. Her family didn’t see much of her.
“One day, about 11 p.m., I came home and was starving and I asked my son where the leftover pizza was. He said ‘umm…we ate it.’ And I’m thinking, can’t you even feed your poor mother?” she said with a laugh.
She knows something has to give. Ann the caregiver is well aware of the need for self-care. I ask what’s one of the first things she’ll do when the world heals.
“I’d love to take a vacation,” Ann said. “But right now I can’t go somewhere and risk getting the virus. I wouldn’t be able to manage what I need to manage.”
She allows herself a mental trip back to Cornwall, England. Cliff walks, idle hours in nature. The very things that fuel her soul. Mental trips will have to do for now. Ann will remain on high alert until this virus is no longer a threat to all she holds dear.