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Nursing and farming shape Illinois woman’s life

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ORLAND PARK — The running nurses in the opening scenes of the TV show "M*A*S*H" in the late 1970s sparked a young girl’s interest in nursing.

Years later, a handsome young farmer, her future husband, led Janet McCabe to her other careers — mom and hay baler.

Her two worlds of nursing and farming connect more often than one might think, she said. It may be talking with staff about organic farming, or a patient reminiscing about visiting his grandpa’s farm as a youth. Other times it may be advocating for affordable rural health care.

“It’s surprising how much they cross over,” she said. “It gives us an opportunity to educate a whole group of people.”

McCabe chooses to work nights in the intensive care unit at Palos Health in Palos Heights. That frees up her days to rake and bale hay on the Orland Park-area farm when her husband, a mechanic, and her son, a general contractor, are at their off-farm jobs.

“Nursing is what I always wanted to do,” said McCabe, who grew up in suburban Chicago.

When she met her future husband, Joe, she had no connection to agriculture.

“I never even cut grass. I was new to it,” she said.

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But she instantly liked the farm life. Today they own 40 acres near Orland Park and farm another 500 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat as well as harvesting hay and straw in the area.

Early in her career, she discovered she was well suited to working in intensive care when she worked at Holy Family Medical Center in Des Plaines from 1982-89.

When her children were young, she worked for a suburban nursing agency at various hospitals. She did that job for 18 years. The nurse switched to nights to have time with her son and daughter and help on the farm. Her daughter is now a pharmacist at a children’s hospital in St. Louis.

McCabe’s nursing career changed again when the recession hit in 2008. Suddenly hospitals were able to hire all the nurses they needed. Work at the nursing agency dried up. She started nursing at Palos Health in Palos Heights, not far from their farm.

“Being a farm wife and a nurse is a special calling,” said Pam Robbins, who also carries both titles. Now a retired nurse, she is helping in the COVID-19 vaccination process in Will County.

Robbins doesn’t know McCabe personally, “but I know she is cut from a special cloth — to serve others,” said Robbins.

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Robbins, aware of McCabe’s nursing and rural life contributions, suggested her as the nurse to recognize during Nurse’s Week.

The importance of nurses and health care workers has received more attention during the pandemic.

At the height of the pandemic, 90% of McCabe’s patients in intensive care at Palos Health were suffering from COVID-19.

“Now about one-half to one-third of our patients have COVID-19,” she said.

She says the most stressful part of her job during the pandemic is that patients can’t have their family near to support them.

“They may be put on a ventilator and it may be the last time they talk to family,” she said.

Nurses comfort the patients and arrange communication with loved ones with a tablet or phone.

Working at nights, she hasn’t been part of the cheering hospital staff when a COVID-19 survivor gets to rejoin the family and leave the hospital.

Communication skills she has learned in nursing career have also been helpful to her with her involvement in rural advocacy. Through her work with the Cook County Farm Bureau, she has been involved in public relations, ag literacy, communication and marketing, membership and government affairs. She is now in her fourth year as president of Cook County Farm Bureau.

Jo-Ann Cromer doesn't trust her city's white officials to have her best interests -- or those of her fellow Black residents -- at heart.

McCabe was active in the Illinois Farm Bureau’s Healthcare Working Group, seeking more affordable health insurance for rural and farm families. After much research, the group discovered it wasn’t possible for IFB to offer health insurance until state laws are changed. Still, she said she learned a lot from experts during that process.

Cook County Farm Bureau has 4,200 associate members with many involved through the insurance program. Of those, more than 800 members are farmers. Farming operations in the county, best known for holding the hub of Chicago, include urban farms, equine, greenhouses, specialty crops, hydroponics and row crops, she said.

Often urban people and farmers across the state are surprised to know how many working farms are in the county predominately known as home to the Windy City, she said. Some of her suburban neighbors need to learn the etiquette of living near farms as well, she said. She said one day she spotted an urban four-wheeler using her hayfield like a grassy park.

Another neighbor wanted to mow the hayfield for his kids to play soccer. In those instances, she explains the hay is how she makes her living. It’s another time when all her years of talking to people, urban and rural, comes in handy.


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