Decked from top to bottom, Noel Acres welcomes the Christmas season. Contributed photo. Noel Acres Lights Up for Christmas
Decked from top to bottom, Noel Acres welcomes the Christmas season. Contributed photo.

A group encourages Virginians to keep their lights shining, to pay tribute to healthcare workers during the pandemic.

RICHMOND – Unfortunately, as we said goodbye to 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t leave as well.

Heading into the 11th month of the pandemic in Virginia, a group of employees at HCA Healthcare had an idea. HCA’s Chief Nursing Officer Jan Gannon spearheaded a post-holiday campaign, one intending to light up the night.

With healthcare workers in mind, the company proposed that Virginians keep their Christmas lights up a little longer. From Jan. 1 to 31, Gannon encouraged people across the Commonwealth to keep their holiday lights on. The idea was to honor those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is the vaccine and we’ve got the vaccine and we’re giving it in all of our facilities,” Gannon said. “That’s wonderful news, but we know it’s going to take a while to get through the winter and get everyone vaccinated and get through this kind of surge that we’ve seen lately with COVID.”

It’s especially important to show appreciation for healthcare workers now, Gannon said. She expressed that the virus is equally as dangerous for the very people treating it.

“It’s not just patients that are getting it. Now, it’s us. It’s our nurses, our doctors, our colleagues that we work with every day and their families are getting it,” Gannon said. “We’ve had a lot of illness, like everybody has, I think, during the holidays, post Thanksgiving, and we anticipate the same after Christmas and New Year’s.”

As COVID-19 cases spiked, Gannon and her group strove to spread some seasonal cheer – well past the holiday season.

Light up for Heroes

The Christmas lights idea became a full-fledged campaign called “Keep Your Lights Up for Healthcare Heroes”. It was shortened to #LightsUp4Heroes on social media platforms.

Many positive responses came from people that Gannon didn’t even know personally.

“It’s really touching how many people have been affected and then the response that we’ve gotten,” Gannon said.

The bright, cheerful, colorful lights thank healthcare workers for continuing the fight against the coronavirus.

“Initially, it was not knowing anything about the virus and how it acted and how it worked. It was making sure that they had the right protective equipment to do their jobs and stay safe. Of course, that taxed everyone’s supplies around the world and around the country,” Gannon said. “I think we did a really, really good job – we had just an outstanding supply chain that worked day and night and made sure that our nurses were kept safe.”

Healthcare facilities also faced staffing shortages, which made a difficult job even harder for the remaining employees.

“Obviously, staffing has been an issue for people and I read about it from everywhere around the country. There’s a lot of movement because of people losing jobs, and so we’ve lost nurses because spouses have been transferred or left to go somewhere else to work,” Gannon said. “Or relatives have moved in with relatives. That’s been a tremendous strain.”

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Unsung Heroes of the Pandemic

While healthcare workers receive praise for fighting the pandemic, some of the most human moments never receive a highlight. Gannon shared some moving examples of healthcare workers who went the extra mile without seeking public applause.

“I think it’s been really hard on those nurses who have cared for COVID patients, particularly in our ICUs because they play many, many roles in that patient’s life. They’re the family member, they’re the comforter, they’re the advocate when the family can’t be there,” Gannon said. “The stories are absolutely incredible coming out of 2020 of what it really means to be a healthcare hero and how our own employees have stepped up and continued to step up.”

Near the start of the pandemic, stories erupted about honk parades for healthcare workers. People also cheered, banging on pots from their balconies during the hospital’s shift change. #LightsUp4Heroes taps into that same vein.

“We just want to do something nice for them,” Gannon said.

The Simple Rules

As the pandemic stretches into 2021, Gannon said there’s a lot of COVID fatigue, which the recent holiday season exacerbated.

“I know particularly over the holidays, you want to do normal things. You want to cook and you want to get together with your family and you want to eat and you want to share time with them and it’s just not been as possible this year,” Gannon said.  “And yet 24/7, our care workers are in the hospital caring for more COVID patients than we’ve seen thus far in the Capital Division.”

She expressed that while healthcare professionals know more about the virus than they did in March, life isn’t much easier. That’s where the festive, happy lights come into play.

“It’s really just to remind them that they’re not forgotten. That we know they’re still struggling and we know that it’s hard,” Gannon said. “We just want them during this long, dark January month that we have, we want them to know that we’re thinking about them and we care about them.”

With the sun long gone after a tiring day at work, driving though a merry scene could help lift a healthcare worker’s spirit before arriving home. Or vice versa, it could serve as a beacon of hope to third shift employees driving to hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities across the state.

“When we initially rolled this out, we said, ‘You’ve worked your 12-hour shift from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. You’re going home and it’s still dark,’” Gannon said. “To see all of those Christmas lights shining and know that they’re shining for you, it’s just got to lift everyone’s spirits.”

Through Jan. 31, the lights will shine for healthcare workers throughout the commonwealth.

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Grasping Hope

With the vaccine currently distributing throughout Virginia’s healthcare system, Gannon expressed hope for better times ahead.

“Yes we are coming out at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine and it is a long, dark month, but we’re going to get through it like we’ve gotten through the rest of this year,” Gannon said. “Hopefully it just gives them that extra little something to go in there and be bright and cheerful and take care of our patients like they do every day in the best way that they can, knowing that people care about them and care about what they’re doing.”

So think twice before putting away those Christmas lights for the next 300-some odd days. Instead, let’s light up the night, Virginia.

“Those healthcare workers will know that that’s in honor of them and that whoever’s light they see on their way home or into work, those lights are intended for them. It’s a recognition that people appreciate their hard work,” Gannon said. “I’ve had so many people write me, email me, message me saying, ‘I’m keeping my lights up for healthcare heroes.’”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com