Op-Ed: How one Illinois nurse’s crime is saving lives today

A pandemic is a kind of sinister butterfly effect.

Failure to wash one’s hands on the island of Manhattan can lead to deaths in the Will County village of Manhattan. If the U.S. had grounded flights out of Beijing one day earlier, we may have seen fewer problems in Pekin, Illinois.

But what about the opposite? What if actions years ago are saving lives today?

Every day, Lisa Creason changes clothes in her garage. Returning from her job as a registered nurse at a long-term care facility in Decatur, she removes her shoes, sprays them with disinfectant, bags them up and leaves them outside. Then she bags up her clothes and takes them straight to the washing machine.

Creason’s dream was to become a registered nurse.

But for her and many like her in Illinois, that dream nearly died.

When Creason was a 19-year-old mother, she tried to steal money from a cash register at a Subway sandwich shop. She served one year in prison for the crime.

Over the next two decades, she rebuilt her life. She raised three children despite the death of her fiancé. She started a nonprofit to combat violence in her community. She went back to school, and received a waiver from the state to work as a certified nursing assistant.

But that wasn’t her dream. Not yet.

Creason enrolled at Richland Community College to become a registered nurse. She studied on nights and weekends while working full time, all the while telling her children they could move to a safer part of town when she got a better job. She passed her final examination with flying colors.

But then she got a call. And she started sobbing.

Because of her teenage crime, and a law passed in 2011, Creason could not be granted the state license she needed to become a registered nurse.

She asked what she could do to prove herself worthy. “Well,” one state worker told her flippantly, “you could change the law.”

So she did.

Creason traveled to the state capitol day after day to make her case. After months of work, an old instructor pleaded with her to move to Missouri, where her record wouldn’t be a problem.

“And where’s that leave people in Illinois? That’s not fair,” Creason recalls.

She kept fighting. More lawmakers heard her story. A bill was drafted. And that bill – removing the blanket ban on ex-offenders like Creason from applying for licensure – made its way to the desk of Gov. Bruce Rauner in 2016.

Rauner signed the bill in a nursing classroom at Richland, with Creason and her family as guests of honor. It became Lisa’s law. And she became a registered nurse within a year.

She still gets messages today from Illinois nurses and their family members, inspired to pursue their passion because of her story. Many would not be allowed to work if not for that reform.

More than 23,000 Illinoisans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 as of April 14. The state needs all the nurses it can get.

“You definitely have to be a compassionate individual to be able to fully understand the benefit of this field, especially in a time like now. You have to have compassion,” Creason said.

“You’re not doing it for the paycheck or stability. You’re doing it to try to keep everybody safe. That’s the part you play.”

She offers a lesson for us all.

Bravery, hard work and preparation today can make a world of difference tomorrow.

What can you do today?

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