Nurses and health care professionals climaxed their candlelight vigil in Panorama City on Wednesday night, April 28, with a collective roar, shout, and scream—a cathartic release of more than a year’s pent-up emotion—so they could begin to heal. For nearly an hour, those assembled, socially distanced and masked, held electric candles as night fell and bonded over their shared experiences through storytelling, singing, and the ringing of a Tibetan bowl thirteen times, once for each month of COVID-19. Nurses stood in small groups with their arms around each other, some softly crying on each other’s shoulders.
“We gather here today to remember those we may have lost, to honor the hard work that we have endured, and to heal,” said John Villanueva, RN, ICU, addressing assembled coworkers—mostly registered nurses, some with their children also holding candles, and joined by other health care professionals including doctors and hospital administration.
“Now that we have a little respite from the chaos, we have time to mourn our losses, and to reflect on the hard work that we have accomplished,” Villanueva continued. “It takes a special person to bravely face a pandemic, day after day, each time afraid of taking the virus home with us. But we did this, three times over. Individually, we are just one drop, but together, we are an ocean.”
“It has been an emotional roller coaster that has exposed our greatest fears, strengths, and weaknesses,” said Nora Sharp, RN, ICU. “The whole world seemed to be falling to chaos and sorrow. Going home felt so surreal seeing sunshine, trees, and beauty so readily available outside when the hospital felt like a war zone.
Sharp continued to paint the scene: “The RTs [respiratory therapists] and RNs drenched from plastic PPE, masks and shields, that helped protect us, as well as create a barrier between us and our patients. My coworkers are the only other people who experienced this and can understand enough to give comfort.
“And then there are the families. Heartbroken sighs and conversations over the phone or through the glass room. Many families with multiple losses in such a short amount of time. I am amazed at their resilience and kindness after so much loss.
“Never in my life have I experienced anything remotely like this. I hope not to experience this again.”
The vigil was organized by the Kaiser Panorama City Registered Nurses Association (KPRNA), an affiliate of the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP).
Semanu Mawugbe, RN, ICU and other units, as well as KPRNA Treasurer, opened the program: “I want to thank all of you for joining us at our vigil to honor the lives of those lost due to COVID-19.”
“Our goal and challenge as health care workers, and people who speak for health care in this country,” said Denise Duncan, RN, President of UNAC/UHCP, “will be to make sure that we learn from what we experienced as caregivers and professionals in this pandemic. Tonight, we can begin to honor those we’ve lost, and celebrate those that showed their power and resilience. I couldn’t be more proud to represent the men and women that lead and care for patients in this space every single day.”
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes, Chaplin at the hospital, offered a blessing to consecrate the vigil.
Patricia Gallo, RN, sang a medley of songs of hope and resilience, including “True Colors” and “Stand by Me.” Jenny Toledo, RN, sang “The Prayer” by Celine Dion.
Then came the ringing of the Tibetan bowl, introduced by Nerissa Dizon, RN, ICU, and KPRNA Hospital President: “We are going to ring this instrument thirteen times, symbolizing thirteen months, going back to March 2020,when the very first COVID patient walked into the ICU.”
Cecille Edora, RN, ICU, KPRNA secretary, rang the bowl, which has been housed in the Panorama City ICU since 2013.
Following the thirteen rings on the Tibetan bowl, those gathered bowed their heads to observe a few moments of silent remembrance.
After the sharing of stories, blessings, songs, silence, and tears, Dizon called for a different kind of release.
“Wasn’t there ever a time that you just wanted to yell out? I want everybody to yell out all that frustration, all that fear, all that anxiety that you kept inside you,” Dizon addressed the crowd. “I am roaring because I want to remember, I want to honor, and because we are here together united to heal. At the count of three give me the biggest yell you could ever make.”
The assembled nurses and health care professionals answered the call. They held hands and dug deep. Some nearly doubled over with the force of their yells and roars. They yelled, then took a deep breath, and on a new count of three, they yelled again.
Only then, after they had let it all out, were they able to break up the larger gathering, assemble in smaller groups, laughing and taking photos together, before they each went home to their families, taking with them a small measure of healing.