Employees of Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center could be excused if they didn't have much appetite for a big Thanksgiving dinner at home Thursday night.
After all, those staffing the downtown Duluth hospital were treated to a hearty lunchtime meal complete with all the fixings: turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, dinner rolls, pumpkin pie.
"It certainly makes it better," emergency room technician Makenzie Davidson said of her holiday shift, joining several colleagues for the buffet-style service at Northern Lights Cafe. "It makes it tolerable. It's nice to feel appreciated with a meal."
Essentia wanted to do something special for its frontline workers who rarely get holidays off and who have endured nearly two years under pandemic conditions, said Dr. David Herman, CEO of the Duluth-based health system.
"Thanksgiving is the season of gratitude, and it was important for me to be with all these great people today," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to share a meal, to share stories and to just reconnect. Health care is a very human-to-human business and all of us that are in it are in it because we enjoy that connection."
Kitchen staff got up as early as 2 a.m. to make the meal happen, Herman said, and up to 900 employees were expected to circulate through the cafe.
Shortly after noon, the modest service area was packed with people in colorful scrubs and white coats.
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"It helps gather us all together because in this time of COVID, I think we're all stressed and tense," said Dr. Margaret Chen, a hospitalist. "And having just a moment where we can take a breather and let that all go is really a blessing."
The meal was a pleasant surprise for pharmacy technician Sandra Owusu, who said she didn't know about the service in advance.
"It's cool to be able to have Thanksgiving with all my co-workers," said Owusu, who is studying at the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy in Duluth. "Given I have to be at work, I didn't get a chance to be with my family, so this is nice."
Herman, who was manning the dessert table with East Market Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Stephen, said health care workers are used to sacrificing holidays, weekends and nights.
"These are the people that are here for us today while many of us get to stay home and watch football and have a meal with our family, or whatever our holiday traditions are," he said. "Yet, these people are here, ready and waiting should someone need them. And that's incredibly important. We're privileged to have that opportunity and to serve our communities."
Employees acknowledged the past 20 months have been especially trying. They've had to take extreme measures to not only protect themselves, but also meet the needs of patients amid surging COVID-19-related hospitalizations.
"Through it all, everybody has been pulling together to do the best they can with what we've got," said Chen, donning both an N95 mask and a face shield. "That's really all you can do."
The CEO suspected there were many smiles hidden under those masks Thursday.
"You can look someone in the eyes and see it," said Herman, an ophthalmologist by trade. "We've become accustomed to that; we've learned to communicate with our eyes more."