Flags of Hope remember COVID year at Jacksonville hospital

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – They sprouted like yellow flowers early Wednesday in front of Memorial Hospital Jacksonville, planted there by nurses, doctors and staff to remember the past year’s battles against COVID-19.

The Flags of Hope, some in bright sun while others flapped in shadowy morning breezes, were there to remember the tears and exhaustion they lived with as the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Jacksonville and the world.

But for all the memories of those treated at the University Boulevard hospital since Jacksonville’s first pandemic patient arrived there almost 13 months ago, the flags became a symbolic healing gesture of letting go and looking forward.

Women Services Director Jill Bodden said she will never forget the new mothers who had to go into isolation due to the virus, “having babies by themselves” since no family could come in. But through the past year, the people she works with did their jobs despite a challenging and “very different” year, she said.

“It’s been a lot of different emotions, at first a lot of unknown, fear and anxiety,” Bodden said. “Then there was a lot of amazing teamwork and people coming together to meet the needs of that patient and their families who could not be with them.”

Nursing Services Director Adam Copher said it was very emotional to plant his flag.

“It brought back a lot of memories with the staff and the families we took care of,” he said. “We are all here together so we can continue to move forward with this pandemic and save lives.”

Memorial Hospital was the first Northeast Florida hospital to admit a COVID-19 patient back on March 11, 2020, officials said. Almost exactly 13 months later, Florida has recorded 34,434 deaths so far and 2,090,862 cases, according to the state Department of Health. That is part of the national tally of 30,847,926 people diagnosed, with 556,529 deaths, records show.

On April 15 of last year, Tlulu Potter was Memorial Hospital’s longest hospitalized COVID-19 virus survivor released to applause and cheers from almost 100 nurses, doctors and staff at the main entrance. The 69-year-old was one of about 3,000 people hospitalized in Florida with the virus in only the first few weeks of the pandemic.

When she was released, she gave a triumphant yell of “Thank you, thank God! I’m free” through her mask, saying “Everybody here, they helped and I am healed, and I thank you!”

Many there on Wednesday remembered Potter as nurses in scrubs lined up with doctors in lab coats and administrators in dress clothes to pluck one of 500 yellow flags from planting pots, then push it into the grass.

Calling it an “unprecedented year” for front-line health care workers, Assistant Chief Nursing Officer Megan Koorn said the commemoration gives staff some healing.

“This is a chance for all of us to look back in remembrance of the survivors of one of the toughest years in history and to plant a yellow flag that will represent not only the remembrance, but moving forward as the sun shines to brightly fill us with hope,” she said.

For Ethel Imperial-Strickland, the hospital’s heart valve clinic coordinator, planting her flag meant recognizing everyone’s effforts.

“This is going to be remembered for the rest of our lives,” she said. “It was very challenging, not just for us but the whole community. We had to adjust and do things differently. Even if you didn’t like what we had to do, we had to do it to make sure everybody’s safe.”

Watching his staff with the flags after he did his, Chief Medical Officer Albert Holt IV said it is a great way to remember what everyone went through and look forward to a world with vaccinations against the virus.

“It is a good time to take pause and remember all the things people have gone through and all the things that staff have done in support of patients, their families and friends,” Holt said. “It’s tough for everyone, tough for us who experienced it as caregivers, and it’s tough for families.”

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