The basketball point guard/volleyball setter in Nicole “Nikki” Fernandez continues to pace and galvanize others, decades after she “quarterbacked” teams of hoopsters and spikers at St. Francis Academy in Pittsburgh.
Her uniformed teammates today?
More than a thousand nurses at NorthShore University HealthSystem’s Evanston Hospital.
Fernandez, 50, serves the hospital as senior vice president of nursing and clinical operations. Leadership in the medical field is crucial, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Fernandez, a registered nurse and a transformational leader, joins the hospital’s front line unblinkingly and resolutely each day.
“I learned and developed many leadership skills in sports,” says Fernandez, a Winnetka resident—with husband John, an orthopedic surgeon—for nearly 10 years and the mother of their three sons: Johnny Maximo, 17, Enzo Luciano, 16, and Rocco Antonio, 14. “I’m still 5-foot-1, by the way. I relate to people in the trenches, do my best to inspire and motivate them. A leader must have a vision, must be able to communicate effectively. A leader helps followers become leaders themselves.
“COVID-19 is out there; it’s been difficult, definitely, for us and so many others,” she adds. “But my NorthShore team has been awesome these past few weeks, providing excellent care each and every day. Our senior leadership team truly has been phenomenal and has provided us with exactly what we need to do our jobs. Members of my team continue to inspire me. I find myself thanking them, constantly. You should see and hear them with their patients and their patients’ families. They’re listening, showing compassion and kindness, and they’re sharing their knowledge.”
Thomas Joseph Torchia ranked first in knowledge of math among his household’s members in the 1980s. That certainly came in handy for his middle daughter, Nikki, whose weeklong stay in a hospital for a surgical procedure (at age 16) cemented her aspiration to ace all math course en route to becoming a nurse.
“I’m a nurse because of my father,” Fernandez says, adding her father was a schoolteacher, a basketball coach, and a basketball/football referee. “He had nothing but a positive influence on me. And there wasn’t a thing he wouldn’t do for my sisters [Gina Marie and Catherine Ann] and me. He didn’t just help me with math; he also showed me the importance of hard work and discipline, qualities that were also important to my mother [Mary Catherine] when she raised us.”
Fear gripped Nikki on Day 1 of that hospital stay. But that abated gradually and later rapidly, thanks to the warmth and professionalism of her nurses.
“The nurses,” she recalls, “made me feel safe. They were smart. They took care of me. I’ll never forget how well they treated me and how comfortable they made me feel.”
Before attending Carlow College in Pittsburgh, Fernandez continued her studies and basketball career at Community College of Allegheny County, also in Pittsburgh. Fernandez and a teammate picked a bad day to cut a philosophy class during a college hoops season. The point guard who had averaged between six and eight steals per game for St. Francis Academy as a senior thought she’d be able to get away with an academic no-no. Their coach got wind of the absences and made the pair run sprints in practice for two-and-a-half hours.
“My father had decided to visit me that day, and there he was, sitting in the gym bleachers by himself,” Fernandez says. “He sat there for the entire practice. Then he got up and left, without saying a word.
“I never cut another class.”
Nikki met her future husband, John, at the University of Pittsburgh Medical center.
John Fernandez, the man?
“My hero,” says Nikki Fernandez, who will celebrate 24 years of marriage with John next month. “He’s the kindest, gentlest, smartest man I know. He also makes me laugh. I’m thankful he’s in my life. He is a great father to our three sons.”
The husband and wife like to interrupt the utensils-clanking-plates soundtrack at the dinner table by playing “Roses and Thorns” with their sons.
“We’ll ask them, ‘What was great about your day today?’” the mother says. “We’ll also ask them, ‘What wasn’t so great about it?’ And, ‘What do you plan to do about that?’ We teach our kids to pay it forward; we love it when they do something nice for someone else. I’m probably exactly like my dad was as a parent—tough but fair. I respect our children, and I expect them to respect me. Everything should be balanced, right?
“Being a mom is wonderful,” she adds. “My kids are my life.”
It has been nearly a month since Gov. J.B. Pritzker delivered his stay-at-home order. Life changed for many. But doctors and nurses and lab personnel and respiratory therapists and patient care technicians and other selfless, courageous folks in the medical field have continued to wake up, don work garb, commute, park, enter hospitals, and embrace their calling.
Another day, another opportunity to comfort—and heal.
“Members of our entire care team huddle,” says Fernandez, sounding like a basketball squad’s captain determined to engineer a rally from a halftime deficit. “We come together two to three three times a day to talk, to listen, and to offer support. The biggest part of my job is to be there for my team.
“I love what I do.”
Rounds of genuine and generous support from the community have heartened Fernandez and her colleagues at Evanston Hospital. Bright posters, featuring messages of thanks and appreciation, greet the workers outside each morning. Local residents buy and deliver meals for medical staffers at lunchtime and dinnertime.
“Businesses, all kinds of businesses, have been showing tremendous support for us. We feel it. It’s powerful. Every day is a ‘wow’ day.”
In early February, Fernandez and her family endured a day of sorrow. Husband/Dad/Teacher/Coach/Mentor Thomas Joseph Torchia died in Pittsburgh, after a three-and-a-half week battle with lymphoma. He was 81.
“I watched a team of nurses take good care of my father, from beginning to end,” Nikki says. “I was so impressed. It made me proud to be a nurse, which is the feeling I have as I watch and admire the NorthShore nurses each and every day.”