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Nason honors COVID victims

Conemaugh Memorial Nason Hospital obstetrics nurse manager Rita Notestine places an electric candle in one of the luminaries as part of a COVID-19 remembrance program at the facility on Tuesday afternoon. Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski

ROARING SPRING — Durbin Dixon paid an emotional tribute to his late wife, Joann, during a luminary service held in remembrance of local COVID-19 victims at Conemaugh Nason Medical Center Tuesday afternoon.

Joann, 78, died late last year from COVID-19. She and Durbin were married for 54 years and had three children.

Nearly 1,500 other families will be dealing with similar losses this holiday season, according to Tim Harclerode, CEO of Conemaugh Nason Medical Center.

“Each one of these 1,432 individuals was someone’s parent or grandparent, son or daughter, niece or nephew, friend, colleague or neighbor, and we recognize that this loss, and grief is unimaginable for our community, especially as we prepare to share in holiday traditions with our loved ones,” Elizabeth Dunmore, chief medical officer of the Conemaugh Health System, said.

According to a press release, to date, 553 people have died from COVID-19 in Cambria County, 421 in Blair County, 271 in Somerset County and 187 in Bedford County.

The luminary service was held at each of Conemaugh’s four medical centers. According to a press release, hospital personnel have written the initials of patients and the names of loved ones on luminaries, which will then be displayed by their facilities.

“It’s nice to be thinking about all of the lives that have been lost,” Rita Notestine, a nurse in Nason’s maternity ward, said about the event. “There’s more than we would ever expect in our area, and much younger. That’s hard for all of the nurses here.”

At Nason, the luminaries will be moved into the chapel and will be left there through the end of the year, Harclerode said.

During the service, Harclerode described luminaries as representing stars in the sky that people can use to continue to mourn, honor, recognize and pay tribute to those lost.

“In Genesis, luminaries are referenced as celestial bodies of light,” Harclerode said. “The sun during the day and the millions of stars at night. So we think of the luminaries that are filled out on the table here as just that.”

The health care community was also honored at the event.

Chief Nursing Officer Michelle Buttry said that devoted health care workers have sacrificed so much to keep their community safe.

Nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors and other hospital employees are often the only people who spend time with dying people in their last days, she said.

“They shed tears together and then provide reassurance that their loved ones are there for them,” Buttry said. “The new duty of nurses is often to hold a phone up to a dying patient’s ear while their family members are saying their goodbyes.”

Harclerode wanted to recognize how trying the past 20 months have been for everyone in the community. The change especially in the entire health care continuum has been difficult to bear, causing a lot of stress, anxiety and sometimes fear, he said.

“The thing that I can tell you now is there is a lot of trauma, a lot of stress in the health care workforce, and it’s real,” Harclerode said. “We can feel it, we can see it in the eyes of the staff, providers, the patients and the family members.”

Harclerode stressed that, as the holiday season is nearing, there will be opportunities to ask family members and friends if they’re doing OK, to gauge their anxiety level, to help them and to be a listening ear and resource.

“I would encourage you all to take an opportunity to lift one another up, to dig deep and look inside yourself and see if you need lifting up and if you do, reach out,” Harclerode said. “Don’t be the stoic, quiet person in the corner that everybody else depends on and you don’t depend on anybody else for anything.”

He urged the health care workers gathered to “raise your hand, get help, talk to someone.”

“I wanted to take the opportunity to tell you to love deeper, to see the world through different eyes now and appreciate more,” Harclerode said. “We have the opportunity, we’re still here.”

Mirror Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

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