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Ringing the bell an act of joy and defiance for patients caught up in COVID-19 pandemic

Recovering COVID-19 patients mark the end of their hospital journey with a special bell ringing ceremony at M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital.
Alex Leal, a health unit coordinator, poses next to the “discharge bell” he created. Each COVID-19 patient discharged from M Health Fairview Bethesda hospital gets to ring this bell – or one like it – to celebrate recovery.

After days of intensive care, the first COVID-19 patients were finally healthy enough to leave M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital.

There was just one problem.

“There was no fanfare,” said Alex Leal, a health unit coordinator serving in a medical/surgical unit at the hospital. “I remember thinking this a big deal. This is important, and there should be a celebration.”

In late March, Bethesda was converted into Minnesota’s first dedicated COVID-19 hospital. Since the hospital’s reopening, it has treated a large number of COVID-19 patients, many of whom have recovered and returned home.

After watching first few patients discharge from the hospital without any kind of ceremony, Leal came up with a plan. He repurposed a battered, old service bell that had been languishing in a storage drawer at the hospital, painted it red, and created a special sign. Now, when each patient leaves the hospital, Leal and his co-workers gather in the hallways for a happy send-off. Just before the person leaves the unit, Leal holds out the “discharge bell.”

“You can see the patients smiling and laughing behind their mask when we ask them to ring it,” Leal said. “Two to three rings is normal, but we have people who sit there and hammer on it 20 times.”

Sometimes, ringing the bell is an act of joyful celebration. Sometimes, it’s an act of tired defiance in the face of a disease that has taken so much. Altogether, the bell has rung more than 80 times in Alex’s unit.

The ceremony was so popular among hospital staff and patients that Leal’s supervisor, Clinical Manager Cathi Kurkowski, acquired two more service bells and placed them in the hospital’s other medical/surgical units. In addition to the bell ringing, other hospital workers have started playing The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” each time a patient is discharged.

“Alex is awesome. He doesn’t sit back and wait for someone to do something” Kurkowski said. “If he sees a problem, he reaches out to fix it and make things better.”

Celebrating these small victories is important in a hospital that has experienced so much change before and after the arrival of COVID-19, Leal said. Leal has worked in the hospital for more than two years and was briefly redeployed to another facility during Bethesda’s conversion before volunteering to return to his former workplace.

“It’s a palpable lift for everybody when you here that tone, the ringing of the bell, and you hear ‘Here Comes the Sun,” Leal said. “You think: ‘we got another one, someone else is going home.’ There’s an absolute feeling of catharsis.”