A Heartfelt Letter

Recently, the nurses at the University of Chicago Medical Center (“UCMC”) have called for a one day strike for the second time this year.  This is the result of unsuccessful bargaining between the unionized nurses and hospital administration over safer staffing, safe working conditions, and benefits.  A hospital-wide e-mail was sent out by one of the administrators depicting the nurses as cold and heartless.

The message made its intended impact as UCMC nurses expressed hurt, upset, and outrage on social media.  One nurse posted a response on Facebook which activated overwhelming support from her fellow RNs.

Here is that eye-opening, heartfelt letter from the UCMC PICU Nurse….


Dr. Polonsky,

We’ve never met, but I recently heard you speak at the service awards in October. I was there celebrating my five year anniversary at UCMC. It was quite a celebration for me; I’ve worked at UCMC for five years, I’ve been a nurse for five years, I’ve lived in Chicago for five years. That night, I thought the University of Chicago did an incredible job of making me feel valued, appreciated, and immensely proud of the work I do, and the place where I do it.

Tonight, receiving your email has undone all those feelings. I am a dedicated employee of this organization; I am a natural rule-follower, I hate being in trouble, and I hate conflict. However, I feel compelled to write to you, someone I’ve never directly met, and someone who sits well above me in status (and pay) at our organization, in order to convey some sentiments and facts that I feel you have grossly misrepresented in your earlier email.

“Once again, rather than stay at the table and engage in the hard work of reaching the compromises that will produce a new contract, the Union is ordering nurses to walk out on their patients and their co-workers during a holiday.”

This is simply false. The union has called a strike on Tuesday, November 26th. Thanksgiving is Thursday, November 28th. While the union has called for a one-day strike, it is hospital administration that is choosing to lock the nursing staff out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Additionally, “walking out on their patients” is hyperbole, and spins a narrative that paints the nurses, the backbone of your organization as heartless and unprofessional. I can assure you that no patients were walked out on during the last strike. I can promise you, it broke every single RN’s heart to leave that building, knowing that unqualified, inferior and, at times, incompetent replacements were going to be attempting to deliver the unmatched quality care we provide at UCMC. As a PICU nurse, I didn’t have any patients to walk out on! I worked the night before the strike, completely alone in an empty unit, because the hospital administration had shipped out every last PICU child to a different hospital. So, you’ll understand if I take offense to this comment.

“This is not a strike against a nameless, faceless institution.”

This comment is quite ironic: You are correct; this strike is not against a nameless, faceless institution. However, I’ve been a nurse at UCMC for five years, and your email has made me feel like a nameless, faceless pawn in this organization’s bottom line. I know your name, I know Sharon O’Keefe’s name, and I know Deb Albert’s name, but I’m sure none of you know mine. The nameless and faceless members of society are not typically the ones whose paychecks end with seven 0s.

“This is a strike against our patients and their families. This is a strike against our community — one of the most vulnerable in Chicago where residents face high rates of serious conditions and life-threatening diseases. This is a strike against neighborhoods that rely on us for life-saving emergency and trauma care.”

Trust me, the people at UCMC who truly understand how vulnerable and critical our patients are are your nurses. If we didn’t care about our patients, we wouldn’t want more nurses, more IV pumps, more resources, and a safer work environment. The people who care the most about our patients are the ones who are willing to lose money to defend them. On September 20th, I walked out to picket line to find many former patients and their family members earnestly supporting their nurses at the strike. We are the face of this organization. We are what makes the care at UCMC excellent. Our patients and their families know that better than anyone.

What personal sacrifices have you made recently in service to the patient population at UCMC? When our PICU patients were shipped away to hospitals throughout the Chicagoland area, I went and visited one of our patients who didn’t have family members in the area. Each time I went, I stopped to pick up his favorite toys and coloring books and movies. I was out of work, not receiving a paycheck, but I didn’t care. In fact, my coworkers often bring clothes, food, and toys to work for their patients, using their own money. Can you honestly say you have a similar connection and responsibility to the patients we serve? If not, maybe you shouldn’t have included these comments in your email.

Finally, the heart of your email was read as an expression of frustration that you, as well as other hospital leaders and middle-managers, may now be forced to work more than you were planning around the holidays. Dr. Polonsky, I have worked 4 holidays at UCMC every year for five years. I am not from Chicago. It is an eight hour drive for me to get home to see my family. I have missed Thanksgivings. I have missed Christmases. I have missed funerals and birthdays. I have family members who are ill. I have family members that are elderly. And until now, I have never really complained or resented this aspect of my job. Nursing is a 24/7, 365 profession. I’m sorry you are now having to experience ¼ of what 2200 of your nurses experience every year in the rescheduling or cancelling of holiday plans. Maybe this will be beneficial to you and your colleagues; you may walk away with a greater appreciation of the sacrifices your nurses make for our patients and our organization, and a greater understanding of how valuable our profession is (and why we deserve to be valued and appreciated in the manner in which the Union is asking). The reality is that every holiday where you are home spending time with your family, thousands of employees are at UCMC away from theirs. Attempting to belittle my profession and my character by making me feel responsible for “robbing” you of one Thanksgiving with your family has opened my eyes to how out of touch you must be in your current role with the reality of your employees.

I understand that you are also in a difficult position. You are a leader at an organization that has to deal with a strong union that is pushing their agenda against yours. That can’t be easy. I imagine the past eight months have been stressful for you as well, trying to negotiate a fair contract for 2200 nurses. Well, take a moment and put yourself in my shoes. I work in the PICU; I do CPR on infants. I help police officers take pictures of beaten and battered babies. I sing Frozen songs to frightened 5 year-olds while trying to put in an IV. I hug parents after the doctors give them the devastating test results. I guess we both have tough jobs.

Dr. Polonsky, you have the privilege of earning a lot of money to make decisions that impact thousands of people’s livelihoods. The next time you find yourself at the bargaining table with NNU, I hope you can remember your own words. We are not nameless, faceless nurses. We have names, and faces, and families and friends and lives outside of work.

We do this for our patients. We do this for our patients’ families.

That’s why I come to work. Why do you?

Happy Thanksgiving.

2 thoughts on “A Heartfelt Letter

  1. The letter we were sent….horrible to attempt to pin health care staff against each other. So embarrassing to belong to this organization.

    To: Faculty, Staff, Students and Residents
    From: Kenneth S. Polonsky, MD, Dean and EVP for Medical Affairs
    Sharon O’Keefe, UCMC President
    Date: Thursday, November 14, 2019
    Subject: Nurses’ Union Gives Second Strike Notice

    We are sorry to share the news that National Nurses Organizing Committee/National Nurses United (NNOC/NNU) has given our hospital notice that it is directing the 2,200 nurses it represents to wage a second strike beginning Tuesday, November 26 – two days before Thanksgiving. Today’s notice comes the day after the Union held a strike-authorization vote among its members.

    We are extremely disappointed by the Union’s decision to strike, as we did not want another walkout and have been working earnestly at the negotiating table to reach agreement. The last strike was just two months ago, and we had made progress at the bargaining table.

    UCMC offered significant compromises on many key issues during bargaining sessions on November 7 and 11, and invited the Union to work with us. Today, the Union rejected all of the compromises that UCMC had offered on major issues, and gave us a proposal reinforcing its inflexible demands. The Union did not wait for UCMC’s response, and served us with a pre-prepared written strike notice along with its demands.

    Once again, rather than stay at the table and engage in the hard work of reaching the compromises that will produce a new contract, the Union is ordering nurses to walk out on their patients and their co-workers during a holiday.

    This is not a strike against a nameless, faceless institution.

    This is a strike against our patients and their families. This is a strike against our community — one of the most vulnerable in Chicago where residents face high rates of serious conditions and life-threatening diseases. This is a strike against neighborhoods that rely on us for life-saving emergency and trauma care.

    This is a strike against our physicians, our respiratory therapists, our pharmacists, our nursing support assistants and other clinicians who will be here during the holiday — rather than spending time with their families over Thanksgiving — to care for the patients the Union is ordering our nurses to walk out on.

    This is a strike against our security personnel, our environmental services workers, food services workers and all of our other support staff who also will be here during Thanksgiving to help care for our patients.

    We came away with many lessons from the September strike, and will continue to strive to serve our patients and the community.

    All of us have made plans for the Thanksgiving holiday, and we truly regret that many of us may not be able to spend time with family and friends as a result of the strike — especially those who rarely see loved ones or have a family member who is ill or elderly.

    But our patients, their families and the community we serve need the lifesaving care we provide.

    We have two bargaining sessions scheduled in advance of the strike and had been scheduled to meet on November 26 as well. We have two additional sessions scheduled after the strike on December 11 and 18. Our bargaining team will continue to push forward to try to reach agreement with the Union.

    At the same time, we will begin providing you with regular updates in the coming days about our preparations for the NNOC/NNU strike.

    We know the workforce disruption will again challenge our organization, but we showed the last time that we know how to come together to serve our patients. We urge you to stay focused on our mission to provide high-touch and high-quality care to everyone who comes to the University of Chicago Medical Center.


  2. Wow, I was blown away by the sincerity I read in the letter. I worked at UCMC for several years many years ago; my first nursing job and I’d just fallen off the turnip truck from the little city! Then we fought staffing battles. How long is this going to go on in such hallowed halls?


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