'In the wink of an eye, her life was over': The story of ER nurse who died in cycling crash

  • Nancy Nozicka and husband Chuck enjoyed time with their grandchildren. Nancy was killed July 10 when she was struck by a vehicle while riding her bicycle.

    Nancy Nozicka and husband Chuck enjoyed time with their grandchildren. Nancy was killed July 10 when she was struck by a vehicle while riding her bicycle. Courtesy of Chuck Nozicka

  • Nancy Nozicka

    Nancy Nozicka

 
 
Updated 10/24/2022 6:17 AM

Emergency room nurse Nancy Nozicka could walk up to an unknown patient and leave with their medical -- and life -- history.

"She used to tell me she felt like she was slow, but she wasn't slow. She actually got to know her patients," colleague Amy Barnard said. "She'd come out knowing their story, about what made them a person besides what brought them into the ER."

 

And when Nozicka led a program to prevent repeat heart failures, she bonded with vulnerable patients, recounting their struggles over dinner.

"Some of the stories were wonderful, some were tragic, but she always cared deeply to know each one's special story," said her husband, Chuck.

Now the people who loved Nancy are narrating her story after the 64-year-old died while cycling to Libertyville on St. Marys Road the morning of July 10. A southbound 2005 Toyota 4Runner driven by an 81-year-old man struck Nozicka's bike just south of Terra Road.

The Lake County sheriff's office investigated the crash and recently forwarded a report to State's Attorney Eric Rinehart. "They are assessing all of the information and working toward making a decision" if charges or citations are warranted, Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli said Thursday.

The July 10 tragedy comes amid an upward trend in cyclist deaths, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

The 10-year average for fatal crashes involving cyclists and vehicles is nearly 26, and the overall average annual death toll is 25.5.

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As of Thursday, 30 people had died in bicycle/vehicle collisions in 2022, preliminary IDOT data showed. That compares to 34 for the entirety of 2021, 27 for 2020, and 12 in 2019.

"In the wink of an eye, her life was over for probably something that could have been prevented," Chuck Nozicka said.

He was a Loyola University senior and resident adviser who was the first to greet freshman Nancy when her parents dropped her off. They began dating when Chuck, now a retired pediatric emergency room physician, was in medical school and Nancy was a senior.

Married with four young kids, the couple somehow juggled two ER jobs, Chuck's service with the U.S. Navy Medical Corps and Nancy's job as a part-time school nurse without losing their minds.

"She was the day-to-day wrangler, the organizer, getting all the ducks in a row. She went about her tasks with abundant warmth and love, completely immersed and enjoying every minute," Chuck Nozicka said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Barnard and Nancy Nozicka learned the ropes together as newbies in the 1980s at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. In the ER, "you can go from dealing with critically ill patients who might not have made it ... to a kid who just has an ear infection," Barnard said. As charge nurse, Nozicka "was calm under pressure."

In her 50s, Nozicka attained advanced degrees in nursing, which led to pioneering a program for recovering heart failure patients, mostly seniors. She quarterbacked everything, including ensuring released patients took the proper meds, had the right doctor and were eating healthy, not fast, foods.

"She was kind but she was tough," Chuck Nozicka said. "She could get something done."

Nurse Jacqueline Fitzgerald recalled Nancy Nozicka as a mentor who went to the hospital every day when COVID-19 struck so her younger, pregnant colleague could work remotely.

Three months after her death, patients still walk into the hospital and ask, "Where's Nancy? I haven't seen Nancy," Fitzgerald said.

On their last night together, the couple had family and friends over for dinner and a bonfire at their Green Oaks home.

"We sat right next to each other, arm in arm, after everyone went home, and we said, 'What a wonderful life we had,' and we were kind of surprised nothing terrible had happened to us ... and how lucky we were," Chuck Nozicka recalled.

His wife was taken to Advocate Condell Medical Center by ambulance. When he got there, "having worked in emergency and looking at the faces of the people talking to me, I had no doubt she was gone."

Along with gospel and soul, Nancy Nozicka loved to belt out the "Hamilton" soundtrack. One of her favorite lyrics was "who lives, who dies, who tells your story?"

The family intends to further her story by creating two scholarships and advocating for safety measures such as bike lanes.

When details about why the crash occurred become public, Chuck Nozicka hopes they become part of the narrative "to make biking safer in the county," he said. "So somebody else's family doesn't get devastated like this."

• Got a question or comment about cycling in the suburbs or other transportation issues? Drop an email to mpyke@dailyherald.com.

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