Since the pandemic began last year, the care and comfort of millions hospitalized with COVID-19 fell in the hands of nurses worldwide.

To honor their invaluable efforts, locally, about 25 Excela Health Latrobe Hospital nurses and other staff received a blessing of the hands during a brief, solemn ceremony held early Monday morning.

“We have come today to celebrate the healing work of your hands,” said the Rev. Earl Gardner, a critical care nurse educator at Excela Health, who performed the ceremony and hand blessings with the Rev. Jeffrey Wylie.

Monday’s event marked the start of National Nurses Week — May 6-12 — which was extended to a month-long celebration last year “to recognize the vast contributions and positive impact of America’s 4 million registered nurses,” according to the American Nurses Association.

Despite rainfall making for a gloomy morning outside, luminaries lined the windows of a hallway inside the hospital where the ceremony was held.

The luminaries symbolized the May 12 anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, hearkening back to her designation as the “Lady of the Lamp,” and also the personal and community losses experienced as a result of COVID-19.

“These past 15 months have been challenging, to say the least. Would you agree?,” Gardner said during the prayer. “Through this pandemic, you’ve had the strength and courage to carry out your duties with care, concern, compassion and commitment. You have been a blessing for so many, and today we give pause to acknowledge the light of comfort that you have been to those who are suffering.”

During the blessing, anointing oils — frankincense serrata — were used to acknowledge the importance of personal connection derived from physical care as part of the healing process, while also honoring the spiritual aspects surrounding physical care, as their comforting scent filled the hallway.

Gretchen Peske, RN, MSN, chairperson of the nurse recognition committee, who helped plan Monday’s ceremony, said she thought the hand blessings would evoke an emotional response since “people have lost loved ones during this year-and-a-half and, especially, the nurses in our health system have been very stressed by the high acuity in the hospital, the number of (COVID-19) patients who have died in their arms, truly, without visitors, because the hospital’s health system had to put a limit on visitors.”

Peske said the pandemic — which in Westmoreland County claimed the lives of more than 740 residents, according to Pennsylvania Department of Health data — has taken its toll on the Excela Health nursing community.

“We just felt that this would bring it to a reality of the work and the emotional investment on the part of Excela Health nurses who are very passionate about their jobs and serving the communities,” she said.

The virus-related death rate in Westmoreland County has slowed since December, which was the county’s worst month of the pandemic with 224 deaths reported and more than 10,000 new cases.

“The past 15 months have been very, very difficult,” said who had her hands blessed Monday. “I’m very proud of the staff at Excela and Latrobe Hospital for how they have used their hands for giving and support.”

Helen Burns, senior vice president and chief nursing officer, said the blessing of the hands represents the “power of human touch.”

“And for nurses, it represents passing to others their knowledge, their skill, their compassion — and that’s the essence of nursing, and I think it’s the essence of Excela nursing,” she said.

Excela Health is taking a more reflective approach to the annual observance of May as Nurses Month with events that promote introspection as the COVID-19 pandemic remains the focus of healthcare locally as well as nationally.

Hand blessing ceremonies are planned at Excela Health’s Frick and Westmoreland hospitals at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

Later in the month, a Twilight Walk is scheduled for 5 p.m. May 19 at Excela Square at Latrobe, 100 Excela Health Drive, Unity Township.

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