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By Katherine Iannitelli

There is hardly an Irish American installation in Chicago that wasn’t influenced by the late, great Tommie Ryan or one of his prolific kin: the Irish American Heritage Center, the Shannon Rovers Irish Bagpipe and Drum Band, Irish Fest, Ryan’s Regent Travel & Tours, the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and the Catholic community at large.  The Ryan family’s passion and dedication helped build the Irish celebrations we love.  

But today, the jigs and reels are hushed by a shelter-in-place.  St. Patrick’s Day festivities are suspended indefinitely, and we’re all focused on surviving an apocalyptic virus.  In the stillness, one among the Ryan clan, a brilliant and self-effacing doctor who’s managed until now to stay out of the limelight, emerges as a true hero.

Dr. Dennis Ryan, grandson of Tommie Ryan, is an emergency medicine physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.  For weeks on end, he and his colleagues have been serving patients on the front lines, putting others before themselves as they face the murderous coronavirus and its path of destruction.

“When we saw it hit the state of Washington, the nursing home, it was a gigantic reality check for the nation,” he says.  “It was like, not only is it here, but it is devastating.  Alarm bells went off.  It made me feel horrible for those families.”

But thanks to intensive preparation since January under the leadership of ACMC’s director of disaster preparedness, Dr. Liz Regan, when the virus swept into Chicago, Ryan says, their emergency room was ready.

To support the effort, Ryan volunteered to join the COVID Strike Team, a group of doctors who provide guidance on all COVID-related issues throughout the hospital.  Then, as other physicians became COVID-exposed and were quarantined, he was called on to provide back up, in addition to his regularly scheduled shifts, in the emergency room.  

He is anything but begrudging, however.

“If anything, I just feel more compelled to help.  It’s really time to step up and give whatever you can back.  If we really have to work our tails off for months, we should be able to do that.  I don’t think that’s a big ask.”

Despite all the extra hours, Ryan doesn’t dwell on his own health and safety.  But he does worry about the possibility of bringing the virus home to his loved ones.

“I’m extremely mindful about (that).  Not just COVID-19.  There have been plenty of other illnesses. The flu does it every year.  But this is a brand new concern.  It is way more contagious and has the potential to be way more deadly.  I am taking every precaution I can, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, monitoring symptoms.  (My family) is something I consider with every patient interaction.”

Ryan is especially grateful for those who support healthcare workers, especially groups that have ordered meal delivery for the emergency department staff.  

“It’s a really big morale boost,” he says, noting the additional positive impact on local restaurants.  “It’s good for them, and it’s good for us.”

One of his greatest concerns is for people who risk exposure to COVID-19 by coming to the emergency room for minor concerns.

“The safest and smartest thing people can do is to stay away from the ER, if at all possible, in conjunction with good discussion with their primary care providers,” he says.  “Before coming to the ER, have a discussion with your healthcare provider … to see if it can be handled outpatient or can wait.”

Ryan rebuffs my question about how it feels to be one of the admired, essential workers during this crisis.

“I’m no different than any other person out there that has a family or financial concerns.  It’s shared.  You have to lean on the people that will help you the most.”

I guess it’s no surprise that this highly accomplished yet humble healer, who once summed himself up to me as “the non-musical Ryan,” doesn’t see himself as special.  But, of course, he is just that.  If not the music, he certainly inherited the passion and dedication of his famous ancestors.

And with characteristically Irish optimism-in-the-face-of-crisis, he reassures me.

“We’ll all be just fine when this is said and done.”