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Interviewing Cornelia Popescu at her work place is not the easiest task.
She’s worked there as a housekeeper, then a nurse – more on that in a minute – for 25 years and is so well known, so well-loved that everybody who sees her has to stop and say hello.
Popescu is easy to like, one reason she was honored in March by Rush-Copley Medical Center as its 2016 Employee of the Year.
It also could be the cookies and other baked goods she brings to the staff on a regular basis.
Or the fact she’s considered one of the most knowledgeable and loving nurses in the hospital, hence her nickname, “Mama Cornelia.”
“I put a lot of heart into my job,” she said in her acceptance speech that was laced with both passion and humor. “I don’t know how to do it any other way.”
But it’s also her back-story that makes Popescu so special. She arrived in America at age 26 with her husband Nick and two young daughters back in 1980, leaving behind their Romanian homeland in a quest for religious freedom and a better life.
The hardest part of parting with jobs, home, family and friends, she said, was knowing how difficult, perhaps even impossible, it would be to return, as her husband was not on good terms with the government when they left. According to Popescu, Nick was imprisoned and beaten after the militia incorrectly believed West German friends of theirs were spies, then he was imprisoned again after trying to escape Romania. But even after officials apologized for the mistake, the family was not allowed a passport or visa until Nick went on a 14-day hunger strike in protest.
When they were finally able to leave, she said, the family of four came to America only with a suitcase of clothes apiece. But like so many hopeful and grateful immigrants, they worked hard. Nick started off tarring roofs for $3.10 an hour, she said, coming home covered in black but “thanking God each night for the opportunity to feed his family.” And she worked on an assembly line in an Aurora factory, learning to speak English, mostly by listening to soap operas, where the actors, she noted appreciatively, speak “clearly and loudly.”
“We were determined to keep up and get ahead,” Popescu said. “Our goal was to gain independence. We just needed a little help and we received it from a supportive community.”
Those small but important milestones in her life still cause her to tear up: purchasing that first car, or being able to place a McDonald’s order for the first time. After being denied entry back in Romania, she was able to finally return seven years later, where she soon realized, despite family and friends still living there, “America had become my home.”
Still, Popescu – who eventually moved from Aurora to Winfield, where she now resides, could not let go of her childhood dream of becoming a nurse. So when she was told Rush-Copley would pay employees for schooling, she set about getting a job as a housekeeper there, going to school at night and eventually earning her associate’s degree from Waubonsee Community College. Her efforts were even featured on the front page of The Beacon-News on April 3, 1986, the same day she and her husband were granted citizenship.
“That was such an emotional day,” she recalled, holding a yellowed but treasured copy of the newspaper article.
Popescu went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Aurora University. The couple had a third “made in America” child, as she described son Josh. Her husband earned a degree in mechanical engineering from DeVry University. He recently retired after 30 years with Motorola. And she became such a much-loved fixture at Rush-Copley – she’s currently working in medical/surgical – there were few who were surprised when Cornelia Popescu was named Employee of the Year for 2016.
In fact, the day after the awards dinner at Two Brothers Roundhouse, recalled Public Relations Manager Courtney Satlak, “that’s all anyone could talk about was her acceptance speech.”
“She’s just awesome,” declared Dr. Alice Daniele, an internal medicine physician who stopped by to say hello while I was interviewing Popescu. “She is definitely one of the best nurses we have here.”
The fan parade continued.
“I love Cornelia,” said Tricia Hook, her nursing colleague of nine years. “She’s without doubt one of the sweetest people I know … she’s our work mom.”
Maria del Carmen, customer service coordinator and medical interpreter, even remembers Popescu as her favorite nurse when she was a patient at Rush-Copley 16 years ago.
“She was so caring,” del Carmen said. “She helped create such good memories here.”
Even after Popescu retires next year, she plans on making memories, coming back as a volunteer so she can spend more time with patients who don’t have loved ones who visit or even send cards.
“Everyone has a story to share,” she noted, “and we all need that human contact.”
Cornelia Popescu came to America because she saw this as “the land of opportunity,’ as she said in her speech. But we are the ones lucky to have her among us.
Hard work helps Romanian immigrant become award-winning nurse in Aurora have 864 words, post on www.chicagotribune.com at 2017-05-14 17:00:00. This is cached page on USA Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.