St. John’s Episcopal Hospital (SJEH) in Far Rockaway hosted a “Night for Heroes” on Tuesday, May 18, celebrating its employees and reflecting on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
SJEH, the only hospital on the peninsula serving 140,000 residents, was the first hospital to confirm a COVID-19 patient in Queens on March 7, 2020 — and was at 100 percent capacity from March through June 2020. The Far Rockaway community was one of the hardest hit in New York during the peak of the virus in New York state.
Before special guest host and comedian Dion Flynn, who has appeared on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” and the “Tonight Show” portraying former President Barack Obama, opened the program, the Art-Strings Ensemble entertained the crowd with a potpourri of classical and pop music.
SJEH behavioral health tech Animashaun and his colleagues Kobby and Promise were grateful that the hospital organized the event.
“I feel like this is a fantastic tribute for those that lost members during the whole COVID pandemic, very heartfelt and very sincere from the hospital,” Animashaun said.
Kobby added, “We are glad that COVID-19 is coming down.”
During his opening monologue, Flynn quipped that Far Rockaway was a “weird place” and didn’t look anything like New York City.
“Can I say that? I don’t want to make enemies here. I was driving down here. It was like, ‘where … where am I?’ It takes courage to work out here,” Flynn said.
However, Flynn quickly adopted a more serious tone when he addressed the hospital staff. He acknowledged the challenging time the employees went through, being overtaxed with responsibilities while short on staff and lacking resources.
“It’s not easy. I don’t need to tell you that, but I want to summarize it and bring us all together on the same page here tonight to know why we’re exactly here,” Flynn said. He joked, “It’s not for the free cookie and the water you’re going to get, which are over there, by the way. If you didn’t get yours, get yours. I mean, look, there, there have been budget cuts, OK. Tonight’s money went into the lights and to the string guys, hit them up. OK?”
Flynn continued, “But in spite of all of those challenges, what makes it so difficult to work here, all those things that I’ve just listed, there are a thousand more that you know much better than I do. You worked tirelessly through an unprecedented, unbelievable pandemic. Let’s hear it for yourselves. People lost loved ones, took time off, barely were able to grieve, and had to come back to work to show up and give service, and they did it.”
The actor recognized how terrifying it must have been for the healthcare workers dealing with an unknown virus and doing everything in their power not to infect their family members when they returned home from work.
“We’re here tonight to celebrate the courage that you found to step into the unknown together,” Flynn said.
The Reverend Lawrence C. Provenzano, who also serves as the chairperson of the board of trustees of SJEH, expressed the board’s profound gratitude to the staff’s service, dedication and courage while facing countless hours of anguish.
The reverend thanked them for doing more than their job and accomplishing the near-impossible against impossible odds.
“There really is no way to just say thank you to each of you, other than to, on behalf of the board, to rededicate ourselves to supporting you and encouraging you and having your back as we continue in the years to come to serve this community,” Provenzano said before leading the crowd in prayer for those lost in the past year.
SJEH CEO Gerard M. Walsh said the event was an occasion to celebrate the strength, tenacity and resilience of all team members.
He recalled that many were getting ready to join the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 7, 2020, when the hospital confirmed the first case of COVID-19. The hospital was prepared for disasters, he said, but not for the “tidal wave that was about to happen to us on that Saturday morning, up on the sixth floor.”
“It was hard work for everyone here. And every single person rolled up their sleeves, and they took on duties that maybe they’d never done before, and they did things that they had never done before,” Walsh said. “And people just stepped to the plate and did what they needed to do because we had a job to do to take care of this community and to take care of each other. We became learners and innovators over the last year. Because of that, and we were flexible, but because of what we became, St John’s Episcopal hospital and every person that works there, we’re better than we were a year ago.”
State Senator Joseph P. Addabbo, Jr. listed the words bravery, courage, dedication and noble traits that define heroism.
“And none of us will be surprised that these are the same exact words we could use when describing healthcare workers, people on the front lines, and everyone else in St. John’s Hospital,” he said.
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards reminded everyone that New York City would not be reopening if it weren’t for the essential workers, thanking them for their sacrifice during the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis.
He also spoke about the inequities the COVID-19 pandemic revealed, especially in Black and brown communities, and said it was the government’s responsibility to support health care institutions like St. John’s instead of closing them, referring to the state’s proposal last March to cut the hospital’s capacity and services drastically.
“We in government and others at higher levels of government can’t simply just clap for our health care workers. We have to defend health care institutions like St John’s. We should never ever hear about the notion or the proposal of a closure of an institution like St John’s,” Richards said. “We will defend this institution if we have to lie in the middle of the streets. If we have the protest at the White House, wherever it is, we are going to defend this institution.”
Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato shared that she was born at SJEH and described the Far Rockaway community as tough and resilient.
“You did walk out that door every day, and you did the best that you could do, and you did it for me. You did it for this entire community and people you did not even know. And that’s what makes you the most incredible and awesome people,” Pheffer Amato said. “There’s not a day that will go by that I will not stop fighting for you and this hospital.”
Councilwoman Selvena Brooks-Powers, the daughter of a CNA worker and sister of a registered nurse, knows all too well how hard SJEH’s staff works.
“I know that the sacrifices that the workers make here at St. John’s are sacrifices that quite honestly have been made all along,” Brooks-Powers said. “But now the rest of the world sees how essential and necessary St John’s is for our community. And so tonight, I thank you, our heroes.”