The flickering glow of candlelight luminaries greeted Spectrum Health nurses as they arrived for work Thursday evening, radiating gratitude for their compassionate and healing care.

The luminary displays lining walkways outside hospitals throughout West Michigan marked both the end of National Nurses Week and the 201st birthday of Florence Nightingale.

After more than a year of heartache and change brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual celebration of nurses matters more than ever, said Shawn Ulreich, DSc, RN, chief nurse executive and senior vice president of clinical operations for Spectrum Health.

“We recognize—and the world recognizes—that nursing is the backbone to health care,” she said. “We are grateful for their perseverance, their compassion, their tenacity and their resilience.”

Luminaries lined hallways, parking lots and drives at Spectrum Health hospitals in Zeeland, Hastings, Ludington, Fremont, Big Rapids, Reed City, Lakeview, Greenville and Grand Rapids.

The luminaries represent “the light and hope that our nurses provide to patients and families every day,” said Therese Alt, RNC-OB, director of nursing for United and Kelsey hospitals.

“Undoubtedly, the evolving COVID pandemic has challenged our nursing teams,” Alt said. “I am extremely grateful and proud of our United and Kelsey nursing teams, as they continue to rise to the challenge in the face of adversity and significant stress.”

For Dan Koster, a Kelsey Hospital emergency department nurse, the work comes with rewards, as well as challenges.

“I’ve been a nurse for 22 years and what I enjoy most is having the privilege to care for a small community,” he said. “We get to know families and call them by name. It’s personalized nursing, and it is very gratifying.”

On a field outside Butterworth Hospital, luminaries arranged in the shape of a heart surrounded blue glowing script of “Stand strong.”

Many patients and team members could see the message from hospital windows.

The luminary displays felt at once somber and hopeful, Ulreich said.

“It has been such a difficult year—when you think about the number of people who have passed away because of COVID-19 and immense impact on each and every one of our lives, personally and professionally.”

Amid the tremendous changes occurring in the past year, nurses responded with uncommon dedication and skill, learning and adapting quickly to the demands posed by a new disease, treatments and protocols.

They continue to serve a life-saving role in their community while coping with the changes in society brought about by the pandemic—protecting their families and helping children with virtual schooling.

Retired nurses stepped up as well. Many returned to work when the COVID-19 vaccines became available, helping to get as many shots in arms as quickly as possible.

“We owe immense gratitude to our nurses for surviving—and in many cases even thriving—in this really challenging year,” Ulreich said.