March is Women’s History Month and Nexstar and WGN are recognizing the great contributions women have made in our community. Throughout the month, four finalists for the 2022 Woman of the Year award will be highlighted.

By day, Dr. Halleh Akbarnia is an emergency room physician at Advocate Condell Medical Center. She takes care of patients in some of their toughest moments.

“Anything from heart attacks to strokes to ankle sprains,” she said. “We delivered a baby the other day.”

Recently, more than 50% of her patients were coming in due to COVID-19.

“We haven’t been able to see them as fast as we want to,” she said. “Our waiting rooms have been packed.”

And it was when the pandemic first began that Akbarnia felt an emotion she hadn’t experienced before.

“You would come to work and you would sit in your car outside, and I almost feel like probably that’s the first time I experienced what panic felt like,” she said.

Soon that feeling shifted.

“I think the frustration of not knowing how to help them really started fueling my desire to do something to help on the other end,” Akbarnia said.

Akbarnia started putting together lists where people could find testing facilities. Eventually lists where people could find a vaccine.

Her desire to help only grew.

“There was a lot of red tape, a lot of places would take volunteers but you would have to go through hours and hours of training,” she said. “And people like a lot of the people who are here, a lot of them are physicians and nurses with licenses who can do this. So there really shouldn’t have been that red tape.”
So Akbarnia jumped in starting her own volunteer group. She gathered volunteers to staff vaccine clinics across the Chicagoland area.

Eryn Levis is a trained pediatric anesthesiologist who continues to volunteer because of Akbarnia’s commitment

“She always says ‘We’re doing this. We’re doing this,’” Levis said. “And I’m thinking you are the one doing this. You are the one who really organized all of this, got all of these people together. She’s always very humble.”

Little by little, the work grew.

“My volunteer group went from like 20, 30 people that I was using to 1800 people right now,” Akbarnia. “And we’ve helped vaccinate over 120,000 people and have staffed over 350 clinics.”

Even after hours in the emergency room, Akbarnia doesn’t stop working.

“Also I think the other part of it is the therapy for me, it’s almost therapeutic. It’s been a tough two years,” she said.

That passion and dedication is the reason why Dr. Rachel McDowell nominated Akbarnia for Remarkable Women.

“I had literally used the word remarkable while describing her two days before,” McDowell said. “She’s amazing. She does everything. I don’t know how she has the time to do it.”

Along with her day job, vaccine clinics and volunteer work, Akbarnia is a wife, mother of two, and also a student.

“I’m actually back in school getting my MPH now, Masters in Public Health,” she said. “Because I feel that’s super important to be able to connect the language to the work at some point down the line.”

Now it’s the feeling of hope that keeps this Remarkable Women finalist going.

“Getting people involved in something so meaningful like this has been so great for them that even comes back to me as such a positive thing,” she said.