Graduations are supposed to come with celebration, music and cheers from loved ones — not postage. Sharing in the pomp and circumstance with the people she cares about means a lot to Anniebell Wallace, a patient care technician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and first member of her family to graduate college.
When the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the fanfare she wanted her dad to witness, she thinks about her colleagues in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). There is Laura, whose nursing pin was supposed to be presented by her dad who recently passed away. Julia, Tamara, Nicole, Lyman and Maddy worked so hard for their master’s degrees. There must be others, she ponders. In all, 13 members of her work family deserved associate, bachelor’s and master’s commencement celebrations. “We can still own this,” she tells Holly Ball, a clinical manager, of an idea to hold their own graduation ceremony down the long hallway in the NICU, in socially and physically distant style of course.
With teamwork typical of an emergency code alarm in their division, others rallied to join the cause. Laura Straub, a nurse known for hosting tiny graduation ceremonies for her tiny patients when they leave the unit, handles decorations and helps administrative coordinator Julian Jackson with planning. Housekeeper Jimna Wilson, who’s also a part-time chef, caters island-themed food. Amy Salvant, the interim NICU manager, volunteers for cake responsibilities. When the physicians catch word, they pitch in to cover costs. Nearly everyone helps in some way.
Anniebell, known by NICU parents for her island accent and the small beaded angels she makes to remind them they are not alone, made face masks to match the school colors for the University of South Florida, Southern New Hampshire, Johns Hopkins University, Pinellas Technical College, Southeastern University and St. Petersburg College. “I had my husband purchase most of the fabric and we dyed some to match. We made the light green masks for PTEC out of some scrub pants,” she says, laughing.
“It definitely wasn’t the graduation they imagined, but it was a celebration surrounded by a work family that is so proud of what they all have accomplished. It was so humbling to see our staff come together as a team to support each other in a way that also adhered to social distancing,” Holly Ball says.
“I ordered my cap and gown way back in February. After my university’s commencements were canceled, I didn’t think I’d get the chance to wear them,” says Julia Krzyzewski, R.T., now with a master’s degree in Applied Science in Patient Safety and Healthcare Quality. “It really meant a lot.”
As the song Ain't No Stoppin Us Now blares from a handheld wireless speaker, the graduates strutted 6 feet apart past staff members who line the long hallway. Julian manned the tablet computer steaming the ceremony to the graduates’ family and friends. Of her dad who watched from the Turks and Caicos Islands, “He was over the moon,” Anniebell says.