Branching out and building up

Cassandra Hall inside the McCormick Place Convention Center she helped transform into a temporary hospital for 3,000 COVID-19 patients.
Photo: Cassandra Hall
DPT student helps build a temporary hospital for 3,000 COVID-19 patients at Chicago's McCormick Place Convention Center

Cassandra Hall (DPT Class of 2023) keeps track of each day’s tasks on Excel spreadsheets. Her closet is organized by color.

So she was not fazed by her latest National Guard assignment, to an 80-person team that transformed McCormick Place Convention Center into a temporary hospital for 3,000 Covid-19 patients.

“It was definitely right up my alley,” says Hall, who was just promoted from airman first class to senior airman in the Air National Guard.

The convention center was partitioned into three sections, with patient “pods” in two sections and pressurized tents in another.

Hall’s experience helping her father build houses proved useful as Guard members unloaded, unboxed and assembled furniture, including 3,000 chairs and 2,500 beds—some carried upstairs by hand because of building requirements. They placed beds, mattresses, chairs, pillows, trash cans and personal hygiene kits in each patient pod.


Cassandra Hall transporting patient beds.
Photo: Cassandra Hall

They completed one section, then redid it after orders changed. They worked 17-hour days, but they met their deadlines.

Then they were told to take most of it down.

“We prepared for a worst-case scenario—3,000 people surpassing hospital capacity. Thank goodness we didn’t need to use it,” Hall says.

Hall’s deployment, which began April 5, has been extended three times, most recently to June 24. To protect from the virus, she’s confined to hotel and workplace, bringing meals upstairs to dine alone, taking final exams on her laptop and seeing her family on video chat.

After her McCormick Center assignment, she was sent to MetroSouth Medical Center in Blue Island to help convert the hospital, which closed last fall, into a 585-bed facility for coronavirus patients. The tasks are similar, but “only 800 folding chairs this time,” she says. Now her team is packaging and shipping the McCormick Center equipment to be stored away for future emergencies.

Hall joined the National Guard in 2017 “for the education benefits, and also to do something no one else in my family had done.” Her husband, Matthew, who is in the Army National Guard after active-duty service, steered her to the Air National Guard.

She trained in Texas and Mississippi before her assignment with the 126th Force Support Squadron at Scott Air Force Base near Belleville, where she usually spends one weekend a month as a personnel specialist.

She was completing her bachelor’s in biology at Eastern Illinois University when the pandemic rolled in. Her classes went online and her other two part-time jobs—at Lake Land College bookstore and Steak ’n Shake—went away. So she volunteered for the Chicago assignment, figuring it would be an interesting change from her hometown of Neoga, population 1,500, “no stoplights, one four-way stop.”

“I wasn’t doing anything other than homework,” she says. “I knew I could manage my school work, as well as any tasks they threw at me. And I could make a difference by helping out.”

Originally, Hall expected to apply to the physical therapy program at Northern Illinois University, “because it’s more of a home-like feel with all the corn and less city life.”

But when she visited UIC last spring, she was surprised to find it was a good fit.

It just felt like a change of pace from my hometown was more suitable for where I am in my life. I’ve grown since I joined the military. I’m ready to continue to branch out and get a little out of my comfort zone.

Her guard enlistment ends in 2023, the year she also expects to earn her DPT. After graduation, she’d like to work at a facility that treats veterans.

Until then, she’ll travel downstate one weekend a month for Guard drill.

“Being in the military has taught me to be flexible, to learn to adapt,” she says. “Graduate school will take more work, but I’m dedicated to my end goal.”