Thousands of flickering candles inside luminary bags adorned with messages of affection and encouragement warmed the hearts of health care workers throughout West Michigan.

A Lumination Ovation provided a stirring close to National Nurses Week on Tuesday when, at 9 p.m., church bells rang, the City of Midland and S.S. Badger in Ludington blew their massive horns, and luminaries lit up the night sky outside hospitals, in driveways and on porches of those supporting frontline workers.

The display ignited reciprocal feelings of appreciation from nurses and all health care workers on Florence Nightingale’s 200th birthday.

“We are honored and inspired by the gratitude of our community,” said Linda Schaltz, chief nursing officer of Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital.

The Luminary Ovation is just the latest show of community support, Schaltz said, as there have been countless acts of kindness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“From words of encouragement to donations of food and personal protective equipment, community members and local businesses have graciously cared for us as we care for their friends and family,” Schaltz said.

Ludington residents Jackie and Steve Steckel, along with their daughter Mekayla, decorated and displayed two luminaries.

‘That was the turning point’

One luminary was for their niece, Kristen Bailey, a registered nurse who works in the medical surgical unit at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital.

Bailey is a leukemia survivor who became a nurse after her experience as a teenager.

Diagnosed as a self-described “stubborn 13-year-old,” Bailey met nurse Julie while undergoing treatment at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Julie made a big impact on Bailey’s life and aspirations.

The nurse eased her anxiety about taking a new medication that tasted like soap, a medication that prevented sores in her mouth caused by chemotherapy.

“That was the turning point when I decided I want to do this, too,” Bailey said.

Cancer free since 2005, Bailey started work at the Ludington Hospital as a nursing assistant after high school and later earned her nursing degree from West Shore Community College. She celebrates her 15th year at the hospital later in May.

She’s still in love with the job.

“I enjoy taking care of people,” Bailey said. “Hopefully I get to be that person a patient will look back on (who) made that vulnerable, scary time in their life a little easier, a little bit better. I want to be the nurse that goes above and beyond and cares for my patients and gives back for all the amazing care that I received.”

Nicky Reed, Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial hospital nurse manager, said Bailey’s story is a common one.

“Many nurses will say they went into nursing because they encountered a nurse who influenced their decision to care for others, nurture them and help them heal,” Reed said. “My story is no different than the story of many other nurses. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of those I cared for, give them comfort in their time of need, and most of all, knowing I did my best to care for each and every patient that I touched like they were my family.”

Nurses and health care workers are filling the role of family during the pandemic because of state-mandated visitor restrictions.

“During this time of COVID-19, nurses are especially called on to act as both the patient’s nurse and as their family, providing patients with the physical and emotional support they need during these times when family may not be as accessible as in the past,” said Chari Kemp, RN, director of clinical nursing at Spectrum Health Pennock Hospital.

‘I’m so grateful’

Bailey recalls watching local fire and police personnel flash lights and sound alarms at a recent show of support outside Ludington Hospital.

“I got all teary-eyed,” she said. “It’s a really emotional thing. It’s really cool to see the support and love for not just myself, but for everybody I work with as well.”

Ludington Hospital’s Chief Operating Officer, Helen Johnson, agrees.

“The community support and many acts of kindness and appreciation shown to our health care team during this pandemic has been so encouraging and meaningful to all who are working during the pandemic,” Johnson said. “Thank you to all of our West Michigan communities.”

The Steckels’ other luminary was for Mekayla’s college roommate, Ashley Bischer, a registered nurse at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

After learning of the event, the family felt inspired to participate to show respect to these nurses.

“I have the utmost respect for anyone who can do that kind of work,” Jackie said. “I know it’s not easy and it can be very emotional. I give them a lot of credit.”

In addition to being displayed at homes like the Steckels’, luminaries were displayed at Spectrum Health hospitals in Zeeland, Hastings, Ludington, Fremont, Big Rapids, Reed City, Lakeview, Greenville and on the Grand Rapids Community College track near the Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital Emergency Department.

Messages of community and personal appreciation highlighted each display.

Reed shares that appreciation.

“I’m so grateful to our nurses for signing up to a profession that hardly ever slows down,” she said. “Their resilience, positive energy and devotion to nursing does not go unnoticed.”

A fact the communities affirmed when candles and messages of hope lit up hospitals, homes and hearts alike.