After graduating from Proviso East High School in 2002, Claudia Lopez first went into real estate, working in Chicago for the next 14 years. She then became a pharmacy technician, working for Walgreens, and eventually applied to study to become a pharmacist. But something about that venture didn’t feel right; the Maywood woman prayed about her future.
“I just looked out for God like, ‘Where do you want me to be? What do you want from me?’ and realized God wanted me to become a nurse,” Lopez said. “I feel so blessed. Not everybody is working in the field they want to be in, but I feel a sense of meaning to what I want to do. Every day is very stressful — it can be very, very stressful — but I always feel I am where I’m supposed to be.”
Once scared of needles and drawing blood, Lopez applied to nursing school at Triton College and was immediately accepted into the program, where she attended classes while working full-time. She graduated and accepted her dream job at Westlake Hospital in Maywood — “I wanted to be in the same community in Proviso Township. I have a lot of family here. I know a lot of people in the community and I know that I’m needed in the community because I’m Spanish-speaking and there’s a large Latino population there. I’m Mexican American. It worked out beautifully,” she said.
But on the cold night of Feb. 3, 2016, Lopez’s work was needed more urgently than usual. Vicelis Roman, of Chicago, had just given birth to her third child, Jacob. Before Lopez went to work that night she prayed, as she always does, “that God will help me care for patients adequately, give them the best care I could provide that day.” She arrived for her shift at 7 p.m. and Jacob, roughly 12 hours old, was sitting in the delivery room; the mother and father were fast asleep.
After she gave birth, Roman told hospital staff she thought the baby’s breathing sounded irregular, that she heard slight grunts and wheezing. The doctor and delivery nurse told her the baby was fine, just transitioning to life outside the womb. But when Lopez saw the new baby, she immediately thought: “I don’t like the noise the baby is making.” His skin was pale and lips blue.
“He just kept getting worse and worse, almost by the second,” she said. Jacob was incubated, underwent chest X-rays and CAT scans and hospital staff realized Jacob did not have a respiratory issue but a cardiac problem. The boy was transferred to Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, where the next day doctors performed open heart surgery. Roman was discharged from the hospital early the next day.
Lopez never found out what happened to the new mother and her young son.
“I didn’t even really know if the baby had survived,” she said, and remembered him every time another baby came in with cardiac issues or was transferred to Lurie.
More than two years later, Roman posted on Facebook, writing, in part: “Every year I pick someone special to give a gift of appreciation to during Christmas. For the past two years I’ve been on the search to find the woman who saved my son’s life. …
“It’s my mission to find this nurse and my mission to give her the recognition she deserves. Because in my eyes she’s on top of the world and that’s the view I want her to feel and see.”
She tagged Westlake Hospital in the post. Just three days after writing on Facebook, the hospital contacted Roman, offering to reunite her and Lopez. Roman jumped at the offer. Once Jacob’s initial open heart surgery was complete and things had settled into a routine at home, nearly three years ago, Roman had returned to Westlake, attempting to thank Lopez for saving her son’s life. But hospital staff refused, as a privacy measure.
“People live in this little bubble. I think it’s just really important for you to recognize other people and not just yourself,” Roman said.
On Dec. 10, she arrived at Westlake feeling excited but shocked that her family would finally meet Lopez.
“For me, as a parent, it’s very important to hold a relationship with her. I want him to realize it’s OK for him to be the way he is and to love himself and to realize there are people out there who care about him, Claudia being one of them.”
Lopez learned that Jacob has been diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot, a rare condition that causes oxygen-poor blood to flow from the heart. Jacob has already undergone two open heart surgeries and is scheduled for another come January.
This was the first time anyone had ever gone to such great lengths to recognize her work, and she guessed that it would probably be the last.
“This is quite extraordinary. As nurses, in general, we do save lives all the time. This is not the first either mom or baby I saved and it will not be the last after that,” Lopez said. “I’m always proud to say that I am a nurse. I’m not ‘just a nurse;’ sometimes people tell me that. I’m not ‘just a nurse;’ I am a nurse and I’m very proud.”
Now a mother of two, Lopez has come a long way from when she was a high school senior, unsure of her future. She credits her time at Proviso East for teaching her a strong work ethic that prepared her to become a nurse.
“Reach for something because I feel that everybody nowadays needs to have that background,” she said. “Stay in school, focus on school. You could always have fun later, but you need to make time for your education.”