Debbie Ryan, an Oak Parker, was a top volunteer for Oak Park’s public health department as it sponsored vaccine clinics and other COVID-related projects over many months. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

More than 200 active volunteers put in more than 3,100 hours of their personal time to help the Oak Park Health Department directly administer 12,000-plus COVID-19 vaccines, according to the village of Oak Park, but one particular volunteer’s tireless efforts extend far beyond the vaccination clinics.

Debbie Ryan has spent over a full calendar year assisting the health department in its COVID-response, giving over 150 hours of her personal time to the cause as a member of the Medical Reserve Corps. 

“I just wanted to do my part, so that once this is over, I could say at least I did something,” Ryan told Wednesday Journal.

Her COVID-19 volunteer work began in May 2020, taking the temperatures of village employees. When the farmers market started up later last summer, Ryan continued taking temperatures of employees while also making sure that everyone complied with the mask requirement. 

In January 2021, the Oak Park Health Department started hosting vaccination clinics. Ryan was a fixture during all phases of the vaccination rollout, traveling to different places in the village for each clinic, including nursing homes and schools. 

“Debbie was definitely one of those faces that were at almost every single clinic we had,” said Gaurav Goankar, the village’s former emergency preparedness response coordinator. “She was there so much that almost all of our staff knew her by name.”

Ryan took on a multitude of different jobs at the clinics but spent most of her time registering patients. At one point, she even directed traffic, which she found rather enjoyable. Ryan often took double shifts and helped train new volunteers.

“There were times when I was on my feet the whole time,” she said. “We worked in the cold and in the heat and in the rain and there were times when I wondered if I was going to make it through my shift.”

On certain clinic days, she saw “hundreds and hundreds” getting inoculated. The village of Oak Park has reported that about 60 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated.

During patient registration, Ryan had to ask people to share if they had any underlying medical conditions. She saw many people who were HIV-positive or receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

“They’ve got to worry about chemo and now they’ve got to worry about this horrible disease. How do you do that?” she said. “I was overwhelmed for them.”

No matter how heartbreaking the situation, Ryan never once felt like quitting. She found fulfillment by helping others to protect themselves from the virus and would do it all again in a heartbeat.

“We were doing the right thing,” she said. “Everybody had the same focus, which was just helping people.”

At times, Ryan encountered patients who were frightened by the prospect of receiving the vaccine. She remembers a particular incident during a clinic at one of the senior facilities with an elderly woman who was terrified.

“She was in her 90s and she was crying, saying, ‘Are you going to hurt me?’” Ryan recalled. 

Ryan explained to the woman that no one was going to hurt her, that they were only giving her a shot to prevent her from catching the virus. 

“But she was just so afraid,” Ryan said. 

For the most part, people were mostly relieved and joyous to receive their vaccinations though, said Ryan. Many took pictures to mark the occasion. She considered documenting her experiences but felt a little uneasy taking pictures given all the suffering caused by COVID-19.

“I was happy when I saw people that were taking pictures, proud that they got their vaccine,” she said. “I think that probably encouraged a lot of people.”

Having put in considerable time and energy into seeing people vaccinated, Ryan’s contribution to the response effort did not go unnoticed by Goankar, who credits her for contributing to its overall success.

“She definitely played a very large part in why these clinics were so successful,” he said.

Ryan, however, is quick to point out that she was just one of a large number of people who assisted in the response, including those who sent meals to healthcare workers, which she said she wasn’t able to do. Nurses and doctors came out of retirement to volunteer at the clinics. Some volunteers would come directly from work. Others would sacrifice family time to be there. 

“Maybe I put in more hours,” Ryan said. “But that doesn’t make me any more special than the people who were there while their kids were in school or could only come once a week.”

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