An era is coming to an end at the Will County Health Department with the January 31st retirement of Family Health Services Director Pat Dames-Schuster. But where did her era really begin? Actually, it was long before she became director in 2009.
Dames-Schuster, a Joliet native and Joliet Central High School graduate, received her BSN nursing degree from Lewis University in 1977. During that time, she was a student intern at the Will County Health Department. Upon graduation, she spent six months working for the Health Department for her first after graduation job.
“I was a public health nurse participating in various on-site clinics,” Dames-Schuster recalled. “This was back when if you were a low-income mother with a new baby, no doctor would take you. So we would set up ‘well child clinics,’ which offered physicals and monitored growth and development, at a church perhaps in Frankfort or Mokena; and mothers would bring the newborns to us. We also had mobile clinics such as for immunizations, and these clinics would return to locations on a three-month cycle. Looking back now, these clinics showed significant need in Will County, and helped lead to the creation of the Health Department’s Federally Qualified Community Health Center.”
Later in her career, from 1980 to 1993, Dames-Schuster served at Silver Cross Hospital. She began in the OB/Maternity Department, and later worked as a discharge planning nurse. In this role, it was Dames-Schuster’s job to help new mothers with special needs when they were ready to go home. “For instance, they might have been diabetic, had hypertension, or needed daily oxygen or intravenous antibiotics. We needed to assess their needs and help them follow doctors’ orders.”
During that time as a discharge planning nurse, Dames-Schuster developed a working partnership with someone; a partnership that continues to this day, right up to her retirement. Dr. Billie Terrell, PhD; recently retired Masters Social Work Program Director for the University of Saint Francis and also a current Will County Board of Health member, was working for Silver Cross as a social worker. “Our working relationship,” Dames-Schuster recalled, “was one of the early mergers of nursing and social work when it came to patient discharge planning. The more medical tests that were developed, the more needs patients had. If they had to go home on a ventilator, or needed to take IV antibiotics with very specific instructions on dosage and timing, they had to know what to do.”
Dr. Terrell recalls those days as well. “We were working as part of a team, having to evaluate everything on the patient so they could be discharged instead of having an extended hospital stay. When it came to listening to each other and accepting each other’s recommendations, Pat was always receptive. She’s extremely smart and loves her profession. If she does not know something, she will contact the person who does. I know she’s been great for the Health Department. Whenever I see her, the first thing I do is smile. There are so many things we have done together that we’ve forgotten.”
It was in 1992 that something happened in Dames-Schuster’s life which set the tone for not just her future, but also for her family’s. Her mother passed away, and Dames-Schuster’s family took over caring for her grandmother. “I inherited my 92-year-old grandmother from my mom and she moved in with us. She had raised me more than anyone else, since my dad died at 33 and my mom was busy as a nurse at the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.”
Not only did Dames-Schuster’s training as a nurse help in caring for her grandmother, but it also had an effect on her son. “We had a couple of emergency incidents with ‘Gram’ over the years, and sure enough my son became a firefighter and paramedic with the Joliet Fire Department.”
After her grandmother’s passing in 2000, Dames-Schuster realized she wanted to return to the Will County Health Department. “I guess I was spoiled in not having to drive to work on evenings and weekends. So I decided to see what the Health Department had available.”
Dames-Schuster became a staff nurse working in the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service) Program. That led to a position managing the Health Works Program, which provides case management services for foster children, in 2004. Then came her position as Family Health Services Director in 2009.
Dames-Schuster says she quickly found out, and embraced, what being a division director is like. “You come into a job having one idea of what you will be doing, thinking you’ll have every day outlined. But it turned out to be a different thing and a different routine every day, a challenge I really enjoyed.”
As she prepares to step down at the end of January, Dames-Schuster says what she will always feel best about is the atmosphere in Family Health Services during her time as the leader. “I said from day one that I’m no more important than the person at the front desk, and we have lived that. We’ve lost people over time with budget issues, but my managers know their programs, and their staffs are stronger than ever. We have such a solid team, and it works.”
Will County Health Department Executive Director Sue Olenek says Dames-Schuster is exactly right about what Family Health Services does, and added that she has led the way beautifully. “The FHS division provides a myriad of services to the community. Some are directly to clients, such as with WIC or our HIV and STD prevention services; and some are indirectly and behind the scenes, like epidemiology and health works. To provide all these services seamlessly, you need a good management team led by a dedicated and experienced division head. That’s exactly what Pat Dames-Schuster is. She will be missed.”
Dames-Schuster says the accomplishments of FHS during her time leading the way especially shine in how the staff supports each other. “We celebrate our successes, our marriages, our children; all through the good and bad, we are tight. They have made me look good by going above and beyond the call.”