Healthcare workers greet an engine from the Anaheim Fire Department as it passes by UC Irvine Douglas Hospital during Tuesday’s parade of appreciation.
Healthcare workers greet an engine from the Anaheim Fire Department as it passes by UC Irvine Douglas Hospital during Tuesday’s parade of appreciation. Carlos Puma for UCI Health

Hand placed over her heart, the nurse held back tears as she watched the parade snake by.

“Oh my gosh, I’m getting goose bumps,” said Johanah Carrera, a UCI Health nurse of 20 years and currently a perinatal nurse educator assigned to the Department of Nursing Quality, Research and Education.

Carrera, using her cellphone to capture the moment on video, joined dozens of colleagues curbside outside the entrance of UC Irvine Douglas Hospital at noon Tuesday, April 14, to watch a procession of first responders from several Orange County agencies slowly roll by – lights flashing and sirens blaring – to salute front-line healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While others inside the hospital watched through room windows and from interior walkways, police officers, firefighters and EMTs – many with placards of appreciation affixed to their vehicles – waved and shouted out words of thanks.

The nurses, doctors and other hospital staff members outside waved back, their smiles apparent behind the masks covering their noses and mouths.

“It’s just amazing that during this challenging time, acts of kindness and appreciation prevail,” Carrera said. “We are all in this together, and with my full heart, I will pay it forward by showing more acts of kindness and appreciation not only to my fellow UCI nurses, but to all ‘front-liners.’ Thank you to our local police departments, firefighters, ambulance agencies and the organizers for this parade of thanks.”

Emotional scene

Public safety entities that participated in the 15-minute procession included the UCI Health Public Safety Division, the UCI Police Department, the Orange Police Department, the Anaheim Police Department, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, Anaheim Fire & Rescue, the California Highway Patrol, the Orange Fire Department and Doctor’s Ambulance Service.

“It was really cool,” said Anaheim police Sgt. Mark Lillemoen, who was among a half-dozen officers from his department’s community policing team who joined dozens of Orange County first responders in the parade.

“I couldn’t believe how many doctors and nurses were outside – and other people in scrubs looking out the hospital windows,” Lillemoen said. “In this coronavirus situation, they’re on the front line. They’re the ones most likely to be exposed. I think I would be a little nervous being in their shoes.”

Although the procession was about law enforcement officers and other first responders thanking healthcare workers, the respect – and love – flowed both ways.

Theresa Valverde, an administrator in UCI Health guest services, became emotional when asked about the show of appreciation.

“I just had to thank them with a little bit of sign language I know,” said Valverde, who has a grandson who’s deaf. She used her right hand to say thank you in American Sign Language, extending her hand away from her mouth.

Everyday bravery

Valverde works with Carol Lynn as front-line greeters in the lobby of a building on the UCI Medical Center campus known as The Tower, which houses such departments as radiology, labor and delivery, and surgery. The two assess patients and help visitors who enter the lobby – many of whom mistake it for the entrance to the emergency room, which is next door.

“It’s scary because you don’t know what’s coming in the front door,” Valverde said. “You don’t know what [disease] you can possibly take home to your family. Some of the nurses are fearful themselves, but they’re still doing their jobs.”

Said Lynn: “I’m very patriotic, and any time anything like this happens, it’s very emotional. I really appreciate it, but I appreciate [the first responders] more. They have to confront people that might not want to follow the rules.”

The feelings are mutual.

“Obviously, at this time,” said Anaheim Fire & Rescue Deputy Chief Mike Molloy, “a lot of people are really stepping up and showing extra support for each other. [Healthcare workers] help us do our job. We have a longstanding relationship with them, and we wanted them to know we’re here for them.”

Tuesday’s procession followed a more impromptu evening procession Saturday, April 11, outside UCI Medical Center that was organized by Forever Footprints, which provides opportunities for remembrance for families who’ve lost a baby.

Maryam Ziglari, a nurse in interventional radiology, missed Tuesday’s event. She had been in a basement meeting and didn’t even hear the sirens.

“They did that for us?” Ziglari said with a warm smile. “That’s so nice.”