Paddy Juliano and Natalie Kelly are registered nurses who have been around death.
But they never had to worry about bringing it home to their family before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like every employee at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, they have been mentally and emotionally exhausted since March 2020. Even so, they showed up at work for every shift — often extra shifts — to play an important role in the health of their community.
They were just two members of the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center team that was honored Dec. 8 by the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund, which selected the entire hospital staff as its Humanitarian of the Year. The award was announced during a ceremony at the Grove that also was used to announce the community fund's 17 grant recipients.
It all was part of a Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance luncheon that spotlighted area nonprofits.
It was the first time the Humanitarian of the Year award didn't go to an individual.
"Obviously, it is very humbling," said Andy Guz, the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center CEO. "It's an honor. We have 700-plus employees and 500-plus on our medical staff. Every one of them deserves this award individually. It's been nearly two years of this.
"Through sheer will, we saved lives."
Guz talked about starting the pandemic and facing the unknown. The staff quickly learned more when the science emerged about COVID-19 and how to best treat it.
He said one of the first things that rocked his staff was the vulnerability of hospitals across the nation because personal protective equipment was in shorter supply than needed. Being that was the best way to keep his staff safe, Guz immediately started searching and ordering more personal protective equipment.
The entire hospital industry had to conduct business in a different manner. Ideas came from everywhere.
Shortly after the pandemic began, Guz attended a Saturday meeting when one of the staff suggested putting baby monitors in rooms so those entering and exiting the rooms wouldn't have to keep putting on and taking off personal protective equipment. It would make a difference in using less PPE.
"I went right to Target and bought 12 baby monitors ... every one they had," said Guz, who bought more in the following days because they worked so well. "We had to be a flexible organization to deal with this."
Saying the pandemic effected everyone in some shape or form, Guz said he wanted the community to understand that most people in the general public had some kind of escape from the pandemic. Even if it was just going to work, they could focus on something else.
The health care workers had the stress and anxiety of dealing with the pandemic at work, then had to deal with it at home with their families.
"You could see that manifesting itself in people," he said. "Their faces showed constant exhaustion."
Kelly was one of those employees.
"It was not only the work capacity," she said. "It wasn't just how my patients were sick. It was personally worrying how my kids were doing with online learning. I would get off work and teach them lessons. I was working 24/7. It was pure exhaustion. I was terrified how it might affect me or my husband. I was seeing people my age (in their 30s) die in front of me."
Juliano said every time she walked through her door at home, she was thinking about the pandemic and how it might affect her family.
"I would take my clothes off in the garage because I was worried about bringing it home to my family," she said. "That was my biggest fear."
Juliano, a former New York firefighter, said it haunted her to see patients like her in their 50s dying of COVID-19. She would look into their faces and feel helpless.
"We only could do so much for people," she said. "It wasn't enough."
She said her coworkers felt the same way, and they all were exhausted. Then members of the community would bring a free meal or would donate personal protection equipment. It would give the staff a burst of energy to be embraced.
"In a good way, the community came together," she said. "That helped us out so much at a time we wondered why there was so much death. Would it ever end?"
Juliano said one of the toughest things for the workers was seeing family members unable to say goodbye to their loved ones who died due to COVID-19. Both Juliano and Kelly said they wondered if they could continue working in the health profession.
"We lost a lot of great nurses," Juliano said. "I felt very empathetic toward them. I told myself 'I don't know if I can do this.' But I have to do this. It's my calling."
Kelly said she thought about getting out because of the trauma.
"I witnessed just horrible things," she said. "It stays with you, and changes you. I know I am a lot more grateful to be alive. I think about being able to be on a treadmill and having my (healthy) lungs."
Juliano said she will be left with the image of her coworkers' eyes, visible above the masks.
"You're looking at their eyes all day long," she said. "You see the fear, the empathy we have toward each other."
A 31-year-old man came into the hospital with COVID-19 and died from the disease. Kelly said the vision of his face will never go away for her.
Neither spent any time mentioning all the people they saved or helped.
It's just what they do, and why the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund gave the hospital as a whole the honor.
"I am tremendously proud of our adaption to how we took care of our patients," Guz said. "We showed our culture and our character here. We're not out of the fight, but we've come a long way."
Bryan Boudreaux was the chair of the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund's Humanitarian of the Year award committee. He explained that it wasn't hard to pick an entire organization rather than an individual.
"Every single member (of Lakewood Ranch Medical Center) was critical to keeping the organization up and running," Boudreaux said. "They are health care heroes."
The event also named the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund's grant recipients.
"This is basically a celebration of philanthropy," said fund President David Fink. "It highlights all the good the residents and the community has done."
Fink said the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund has award about $1.5 million in grants since its inception in 2000, and that includes about $65,000 this year.
"We have COVID, which clearly was a challenge," Fink said. "I couldn't be prouder of what we have done. This event also reinforces the breadth and depth of the need in our community."
Nicole Britton, the director of development for The Twig Cares, a ministry which serves foster children, said the $2,500 grant from the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund is huge.
"Every month, we give out 3,000 items," Britton said. "It makes a big impact and we are thrilled. It says the community is wrapping its arms around our mission."
Shawn Simmons, the executive director of the Lakewood Ranch YMCA, said the $5,000 grant would allow kids in need to go to summer camp, and would allow parents to take advantage of before and after school care for their children. She said it would also help with programming that helps people of all ages.
The grant recipients were Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Suncoast, Children's Guardian Fund, Foundation for Dreams, Healthy Teens Coalition of Manatee County, Hungers End, Josh Provides Epilepsy Assistance Foundation, Making an Impact, Mana-sota Lighthouse for the Blind, Manatee County Children's Services, Manatee YMCA Lakewood Ranch, Prospect Riding Center, Southeastern Guide Dogs, Stillpoint Mission, Take Stock in Children of Manatee County, The Twig Cares, Tidewell Foundation, and We Care Manatee.
The Lakewood Ranch Community Fund didn't announce the amount of individual grants.