ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — In January of 2020, Renee Guillet started her new job as an X-ray technologist at Children's Hospital Colorado.
In the year the followed, Guillet was one of many health-care workers across the country to form the front line against perhaps the worst pandemic in a century. At that time, COVID-19 had probably already reached Colorado, but it wasn't until a little over a month later when the first official case would be recorded.
As daily life got reshuffled, she and her coworkers did their best to adjust to unfamiliar new guidelines, new anxieties and, to their enjoyment, new forms of appreciation.
In Denver, that included the 8 p.m. howling that echoed throughout neighborhoods, a flyover from U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds and the display of pink lights in the shape of a heart on a skyscraper downtown.
Her sister, who lived in New York, would also call her and put the phone up to the window so that Renee could hear her city's pots-and-pans tributes to health-care workers.
"My sister, she lived in New York, and she would call me and put up the phone so I could hear the pots and pans, as well as the howling that was happening here. It was actually very touching. I know at one point one of the buildings in downtown Denver had put up a big heart for the health-care workers. When I would drive home, I would see that. It felt good. I definitely felt appreciated."
Almost a year later, cities may not be howling or banging pots and pans, but the appreciation hasn't stopped. With the Super Bowl approaching, the NFL gave 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers free tickets to the big game.
Guillet is one of them, and her coworker Peter Stackhouse is another. UCHealth nurses Maxi Holcomb and Lauren Kass were also selected by the Broncos to represent Denver in Tampa.
"I'm pretty sure I got misty eyed as a football fan," Stackhouse said.
Guillet and Stackhouse have each watched the Super Bowl plenty of times from their own couches, but never before from the stands at the game.
"I was just honored, just kind of like floored," Guillet said. "Like, what, I'm going to the Super Bowl? In shock, but super excited."
As they join thousands of other health-care workers at the Super Bowl, Guillet and Stackhouse will be able to bond with many of their colleagues from around the country who have gone through many of the same challenges that they have. Regardless of their rooting interests, they'll share a bond that goes far deeper.
"We're all going through the same stuff, have the same worries, I would imagine," Stackhouse said. "… I feel like there's almost like a brotherhood or a sisterhood type of thing. Like the NBA or the NFL is a brotherhood and there's guys on different teams, they think of each other in a brothers-in-arms type of thing. I feel like we're going towards that with just going through all of this over the last year."
What has enabled them to travel and converge upon Tampa with somewhat lessened anxieties during the pandemic is that all of these health-care workers that will be in attendance have been vaccinated. It's not immunization, so Guillet, Stackhouse and many others are still following face-covering and social-distancing precautions to be careful, but it's a progress.
"Slow and steady steps, and I'm OK with that," Guillet said. "And then I just keep doing my part. Even though I have the vaccination, I still wear my mask, I still keep my distance. I definitely try to stay within the guidelines of what's still happening, because reality is COVID is still here, and I'm just doing my part to stay safe and keep my patients safe and the public safe."
So even as weird as it is to get free tickets to the Super Bowl, the big gesture represents at least coming a little bit closer to normalcy in a small way.
"After a year and a half or however long it's been of wearing masks in public, you're still kind of nervous to be around people, but having the vaccine definitely gives you a little bit more peace of mind, I would say," Stackhouse said. "Anything you can do to get it to where we don't have to wear masks again, oh my gosh. … But yeah, this is a step in that direction, believe me. I'm happy to be a part of it."