Christmas trees, Poinsettias, wreaths and benches with pillows decorate the rest area for employees

Photo by Marty Cheek
Above: Chris Wilder, executive director with the Valley Medical Foundation, and Julie Ott, special events director with the foundation, inside the Winter Wonderland outside St. Louise Regional Hospital.

By Marty Cheek

Throughout the month of December, a Winter Wonderland built outside the St. Louise Regional Hospital entrance serves as a holiday hideaway for nurses, doctors and other health employees to take a magical break from the stresses of caring for patients.

Set under a big tent, the festive site feels like a forest with 75 decorated trees — some real and some artificial with pre-installed lights. Tables decorated with Poinsettias and cute benches graced with Christmas themed pillows provide a place to sit and eat a meal 24-hours a day as cheery holiday music plays on a stereo. Along the backwall are images of wintery snowy scenes.

Photo by Marty Cheek

The site was set up by the St. Louise Hospital Foundation and Valley Medical Center to provide a place of respite for the fatigued hospital’s staff. It’s important for them to reflect and rejuvenate with the Christmas spirit as they care for the community, including a growing number of South Valley residents with COVID-19.

Danielle Brooks, a nurse educator at St. Louise, enjoys eating lunch in the Winter Wonderland setting because its warm, happy ambiance is so inviting.

“It makes Christmas feel real this year,” she said. “This is giving us that holiday feeling. We have some staff and nurses that do 12-hour shifts. Many of them come out at the end of their shift and take advantage of it.”

At the Winter Wonderland, St. Louise’s program manager Martin Laguna can take a break from buying supplies for the hospital to relax in the ambiance of holiday cheer.

“It’s a great reminder that we still have life going on outside of work,” he said. “So we’re able to come out here in the middle of the night or at all hours of the day.”

At night the decorated space sparkles with the ornament lights, providing an aura of a magical holiday place. It helps staff deal with difficult emotions as they are separated from family members because of the COVID-19 threat.

Photo courtesy Julie Ott
A total of 75 Christmas trees decorate the Winter Wonderland inside a tent outside St. Louise Regional Hospital for staff to enjoy.

“We’re able to come out and get recharged and take our breaks and try to social distance as much as possible right now,” Laguna said. “The health care workers are working hard so this is a great place to recharge and remember a little more about Christmas.”

The Winter Wonderland venue was a way to help staff find a safe spot where they can take a break and still be socially distanced to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Julie Ott, special events director for the Valley Medical Foundation.

“We are involved in this wellness initiative to bring some happiness and joy to our healthcare staff across the county,” Ott said. “It’s a scary time in mental health. With our staff, it’s something we need to think about and address. We really wanted to go above and beyond this year to do something special for them.”

The decorations reflecting the joy and spirit of the holiday season played a big role in the creation of Winter Wonderland. A few dozen Christmas wreaths help keep the tone festive, and these will be given to staff members in a drawing of their names.

“It kind of made sense to do something outside. It’s a small hospital,” Ott said. “There’s not a lot of space (inside) for people to just sort of chill and relax and take a break. You can’t have people sitting in the cafeteria because it’s indoors and you can’t have them socially distance.”

Outdoor heaters keep the staff using the facility warm during chilly nights.

The stress of caring for patients with COVID-19 has been especially hard on frontline workers, said Chris Wilder, executive director for the Valley Medical Foundation. The pandemic is causing considerable stress for staff, nurses and doctors.

To prevent possible contagion of the coronavirus, the public is not allowed to enter the Winter Wonderland venue.

“We’d love to (invite them) but this is for frontline workers who deserve it the most,” Wilder said.

The severity of this public health crisis will have ramifications for a long time to come, he said. He knows people who have died of the coronavirus and also people who got it and haven’t fully recovered.

“They have ongoing illness, ongoing disabilities that will never get better,” he said. “It is extremely troubling when I hear someone say COVID is not a big deal or, even worse, that it isn’t real.”

He considers that kind of talk an affront to the healthcare workers who daily face the potential danger of getting the disease themselves through their work, or possibly bringing it home to their children and spouse.

The Foundation has helped hospital staff deal with the psychological challenges of the coronavirus by providing Zoom calls for healthcare workers to talk to someone who can provide emotional support.

It also pays for hotel rooms for frontline workers so they don’t potentially spread the virus at home.

The community has come together to help the foundation through the generosity of donors, corporate partners, and other funders. The public health crisis will challenge medical and healthcare professionals for many months to come, despite the fact that vaccines will soon be available for them.

“Unfortunately, even after the vaccine arrives, we’re still going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time. It’s going to take a long time to get vaccines across the country,” Wilder said. “Our frontline workers are still going to be exhausted and overworked.”

He especially wants the South Valley community to know it’s important that healthcare workers know they are there for the people of Gilroy, San Martin, and Morgan Hill so it’s important for the foundation to help them stay upbeat as much as they can at this time.

“St. Louise Hospital was there for them during the Gilroy Garlic Festival (mass shooting) tragedy. It’s here for them today,” he said. “And there’s a group of people who are trying to make things a little more merry for staff who work there.”