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Move aside Grinch, COVID-19, etc… holiday cheer is here!

By Carolyn Kimmel and Bill Landauer

The big guy strolls into the lobby at Penn State Health St. Joseph Medical Center on the last Saturday before Christmas.

He looks just the same as he does every year.

Red hat. Check.

Long white beard. Check.

Surgical mask. Check.

The last part of the uniform is new, meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic cancelled the big annual community party St. Joseph hosts every year. But a little global health crisis can’t stop Santa, or even his St. Joseph equivalent, Mike Jupina.

Every year for the past 15, Jupina, St. Joseph’s vice president of marketing and communications, pulls the bright red suit out of mothballs and visits with staff, community members and their kids.

This year, most are staying safe at home, but Jupina has donned his gear anyway to visit staff. He’s followed by his elf, Sharon Strohecker, vice president of clinical services and chief nursing officer, who rolls a cart filled with goodies.

Along the hallways, they pass trees decorated with post-its, vials and biohazard bags.

“People are still dressing festively,” said Jason Dunlap, St. Joseph’s coordinator of emergency management, who has headed up the medical center’s Emergency Operations Center since COVID began. Clinical staff, for example, are wearing holiday-themed scrubs. The hospital gives out vouchers for holiday meals and has given away turkeys.

“Leadership has done everything they can to keep morale up,” Dunlap said. “Because I work with them so much, I know how much they care.”

A man in a mask plays a piano while behind him others listen and buy coffee from a counter.

Michael Marini of Center Stage performs in the main lobby of Hershey Medical Center.

Setting the stage

In the halls and across Zoom calls, Penn State Health staff are taking cues from patients and their families on how much ho, ho, ho is welcomed—and finding creative ways to spread encouragement to each other and to patients while being sensitive to those whose holiday isn’t what they had imagined at all.

Musical notes from holiday favorites fill the air in the main lobby at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, where musicians once again play their repertoire against a festive backdrop of brightly decorated Christmas trees and a menorah.

Rotunda Café cashier David Nesbitt rings up cheer along with the food, as he dons a singing hat and a necklace of lighted Christmas bulbs. New this year, Nesbitt is wearing a shirt that features Santa in a mask, holding what else but toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

“It’s just a little bit of jolly for the holidays,” Nesbitt said. “I hope it puts a little smile on the faces of patients and their families… everyone needs that.”

Finding joy by giving it away

Each year the Penn State Health Holy Spirit Radiology department adopts a family in need for the holidays. Brian Knopp, radiology practitioner assistant with Quantum Imaging, told Amye Burton, director of Radiology, about a single mom who had been homeless for many months with her four children, ages, 12, 10, 6 and 3.

The family recently found a home, but the mother was worried about providing some sort of Christmas for her kids while struggling to pay the bills. Enter the Radiology Department staff, who provided not only gifts for everyone but many household items as well.

“Every time I walked in my office or the imaging conference room, more and more items were popping up,” Burton said. “I am blessed to work with such an amazing department. They put the happiness and peacefulness of this family before their own struggles. They embody the true meaning of Christmas.”

A woman wearing a mask paints pictures of elves on a window in a hospital hallway.

Alisa Lysdahl, a patient care secretary with Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, paints elves on the outside of a patient’s room in the Medical Intensive Care Unit.

Striking notes of holiday cheer

At a recent Occupational Therapy/Music Therapy virtual session at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, made possible through the use of iPads shared by Patient and Guest Experience, patients were “rockin’ around the Christmas tree” while doing exercise movements and playing shakers,” said Jan Stouffer, board certified music therapist with the Music Therapy Program.

Patients tell her the activity helps them physically and mentally withstand their medical treatments – however, Stouffer said she’s keenly aware that some patients aren’t cheered by holiday music that reminds them of happier days spent at home. “Whether with holiday songs or general music, we are still here supporting patients to be their strongest, to cope with hospitalization when visitors can’t be present and to use music and singing or dancing with the nurses as a quick stressbuster in their day,” she said.

Holiday parties that lift staff spirits were off this year, but co-workers got creative with replacements.  A Zoom holiday party for Family and Community Medicine featured local artist Ophelia Chambliss leading the group through the drawing of a snowman/winter scene, said Claire de Boer, founding director of Center Stage Hershey Arts in Health.

“Music and art programs can build community and help us concentrate on the things we still can do during COVID,” she said.

Still believing

The hospital is arguably the last place a child should spend Christmas, but resilient spirits lift at the sight of Santa making his annual virtual visit from the North Pole to Penn State Health Children’s Hospital, addressing each young patient by name.

Some children have been asking for supplies to make paper chains or snowflakes, said Alexis Lombardo, art therapist at the Medical Center. In a virtual activity facilitated by Art and Music Therapy and Child Life, children rewrote the lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” to focus on good their own good memories, which they drew on the template of a snow globe.

Christmas Eve brings its own magic to the Children’s Hospital. Donations of toys, books and games, generously provided by the community, are carefully packaged into gift bags by the Child Life Program and delivered to pediatric patients’ rooms, often in top-secret fashion, by nurses in the late hours on Christmas Eve.

Making it last

If the season may be measured not on the holly, jolly scale but by the spirit of peace and goodwill towards each other, this year’s celebration is strong.

Penn State Health Capital Region (Dauphin County) Interfaith Employee Affinity Group, which is affiliated with the Penn State Health Diversity Office, recently hosted a virtual interfaith holiday celebration to explore similarities in faith that bring people together during this festive time.

“We want to build bridges, not continue to live in our separate bubbles,” said affinity group co-chair Dr. Ayesha Ahmad, “We want to promote an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance.”

Now there’s a gift to last long past the holiday season!

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