Cardiologist and Lake Forest resident Michael Waligora can’t wait to take off his beat-up work sneakers one day and set them on fire.
“That’ll be part of a celebration, whenever this ends,” Dr. Waligora says.
Waligora, 54, is a member of NorthShore University HealthSystem’s COVID-19 unit at Glenbrook Hospital in Glenview. A high percentage of the COVID-19 patients he sees have cardiovascular issues.
That worn-out pair of gym shoes used to be a part of Waligora’s getup for yard work at home.
The former all-conference outside linebacker at Monterey (Calif.) Union High School laces them up these days for work on a … frontline, where he and his current teammates don plastic face shields rather than football helmets.
“I cleaned those shoes up before my first day with the COVID-19 unit [in March],” Waligora recalls during a late-afternoon phone call in April, on a day he had devoted most of his time to phone and online visits with patients. “After work I showered at the hospital and headed home. I do that every day.
“I wear those old shoes with my scrubs every day.”
Similar footwear certainly comes in handy for Waligora’s COVID-19 unit colleagues.
“I’ve seen them run to the sickest patients and save lives,” says Waligora, who joined the precursor to the NorthShore University HealthSystem in 2000, after a stint at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. “But we’ve found that about 90 percent of the cases we’ve handled, maybe more, do not require a hospital stay. And being in a hospital with COVID-19 is not a death sentence.
“It’s reassuring, what our local healthcare system is doing for patients. Everyone in our unit is laser-focused on COVID-19. I’m not overwhelmed; nobody is, because [NorthShore] did such a good job planning for this thing and executing its plan.”
We all could use several healthy doses of optimism and positivity in Month No. 2 of the seemingly interminable coronavirus, and Waligora—the son of a retired internist (Daniel Philip Waligora, 82) and the grandson of a late cardiologist (Daniel John Waligora)—is more than happy to provide the quantities.
“You know what’s nice? Being surrounded by hardworking, talented, amazing colleagues,” Waligora says. “It’s why so many stick around for a long time at NorthShore. We feel happy and confident, all of us do, about the system in place at our designated COVID-19 hospital, and we feel the same way about how we’re handling this and treating patients. Patients are recovering. We’re invigorated by how things are going.
“Sure, life will be a little different after this,” he adds. “But life will go on. You’ll be OK; a lot of us will be OK.”
Also a first baseman and an all-conference basketball forward for Toreadores teams at Monterey Union High, the 6-foot-3 Waligora was named “Best All-Around Student” by classmates his senior year.
The moment he knew a position in the medical arena was his calling?
It didn’t involve either of the familiar—make that, familial— doctors in his life.
Grandpa Daniel died when grandson Michael was a fourth-grader.
“My memories of him?” Waligora says. “He was super nice, super friendly. He wasn’t a doctor to me. He was … Grandpa.”
The grandfather was a military doctor who declined a promotion to general because it would have taken him away from treating patients.
Michael Waligora’s father, who lives in Pebble Beach, retired from the medical field two years ago.
“My dad,” he says, “is a very low-key individual. He didn’t push me into becoming a doctor at all—I appreciated that. I liked school. I liked science courses in high school, especially biology, and I ended up enjoying the physiology and other elements of cardiology.”
Waligora went from SCU to SLU after high school, attending the liberal arts school Santa Clara University before enrolling at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
Early in his career, after ordering Chinese takeout with fellow interns, the fortune inside his cookie read, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” That’s Parkinson’s Law. One translation: “The amount of time that one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.”
The adage stuck with Waligora.
“When I enter a room to see one of my patients, I only do so knowing that I had spent the necessary time to complete the work, that I had thoroughly looked over that patient’s medical chart and was fully prepared to answer any question,” Waligora says. “There’s always time to do what you need to do for a patient. The last thing I want to say to a patient is, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
Waligora’s wife, Lake Forest native Mia, knows the performance art of dance—her major in college. They have three children: Beau, 19, a sophomore psychology major at Elon (N.C.) University; Brody, 17, and Brynn, 14.
“Time with my family, it’s important to me; it will always be important,” says the patriarch, whose family lives about two miles from where Mia called home as a child. “We take walks together, get fresh air. It’s an amazing place, the North Shore area. At times, while walking around the neighborhood, I’ll look around and think, ‘Hello! Everything here is still beautiful. Everything.’ The schools, the parks, the other amenities … how fortunate are we?”
How fortunate are we, with doctors like the still-fit, everattentive Waligora toiling tirelessly and easing fears daily in these uncertain times? He has seen the heartfelt posters outside the hospitals. He has heard the genuine praise on TV and radio, from patients, and from patients’ families and friends.
He and his frontline mates— here, in other states, in other countries—are considered heroes by countless others.
But Dr. Michael Waligora disagrees with that status, respectfully.
“We’re not heroes,” he insists. “Do you know what we’re doing? We’re simply doing our jobs. We’re doing what’s expected.”