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Faces behind the mask

Editor’s note: This is the fourth of a series about those who are behind the masks fighting COVID-19.

Nursing is not a job for the faint of heart at any time, no less during a pandemic. They have been in the trenches for some time now battling COVID-19. Nurses not only take care of their patients but are also helping support their loved ones. With the number of hospitalizations finally showing a recent decline, the entire healthcare industry is battle weary.

AdventHealth Chief Nursing Officer Elsie Graves said nurses are tired, but also hopeful. There are some major differences between the delta wave as opposed to the beginning of the pandemic as Graves pointed out. Healthcare workers are now armed with experience and knowledge and better equipped.

“One of the things that I see that’s different from last year is that we have a lot more patients that are COVID positive,” she said. “And, of course, that is taxing on the nursing staff. I think last year, this time, there were a lot of unknowns. So, the staff was stepping up and participating and helping to care for the community. It just seems like this pandemic has dragged itself out for a long period of time.”

Graves said during this wave, they saw more and sicker patients. They had to get more nurses to patients’ bedsides and still encourage the patient care staff as the pandemic took its toll emotionally and physically.

“I’m kind of a cheerleader. I’m making sure that the patients are safe and making sure that we have all of the appropriate supplies and equipment for the nurses to practice, and especially the appropriate personal protection equipment. As you recall, last year, when the pandemic started, there was a nationwide shortage of PPEs,” she said.

Graves said she ensures the staff has the appropriate PPEs and uses them correctly.

“Those are some of the things that I do on a daily basis to help protect my team and to make sure that we are caring for our patients appropriately,” Graves said.

Graves said while she always prays, she finds herself praying more during this wave of the pandemic, for her team and her patients. She said nurses working long hours have missed vacations and family time just as she has not been able to visit her family in Texas. She said it can be discouraging when you feel like you work all the time.

“Just like there’s no end to it,” she said.

Graves admires her colleagues’ passion and dedication to their patients’ care.

“I will tell you, it is truly their commitment and answering their call to be nurses, and technicians, and CNAs, physicians as well,” she said. “It’s answering their call and their commitment to the profession that helps them to go on and the belief that you try everything to give the family hope. So they’re going to go all in on that. They find a little bit more energy; just a few things that will keep them going.”

The term battle weary comes to mind when thinking about the frontline workers, a term Graves knows something about being retired from the Army after serving 20 years. Now she serves her community. Graves was never in combat or a war zone but was deployed on several training missions that were “very, very extensive” and were mentally challenging.

COVID has taken an emotional toll as well.

Graves’ emotions have run the gamut when she sees patients who have gotten seriously ill when a vaccine may have prevented a severe illness. She urges vaccines in the battle against COVID.

“I will say unapologetically that I am pro-vaccine, pro-mask and while everyone doesn’t share that, it is disheartening when you see that some of these mortalities and some of these events can be prevented,” she said. “And so it hurts the nurses, it hurts their hearts to know that this could have probably been a preventable death.”

While people in the community call healthcare workers superheroes, she wants the community to be the heroes and help stop COVID’s spread.

Avon Park shooter faces more than 30 years

SEBRING — Daniel Luis Galarza, 21, the last of a trio of defendants convicted in the shooting of two Avon Park men on Marble Avenue in 2018, was to be sentenced Monday, but a judge postponed sentencing until Oct. 8 at 8:30 a.m.

A jury in mid-July convicted Galarza of trying to kill two men after his two codefendants pointed him out in court as the shooter in a marijuana deal trap.

Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada, who has received a presentence report, will send him to jail for attempted first degree murder with great bodily harm, attempted felony murder with a deadly weapon, and attempted robbery with a firearm. Each of the first two charges can bring as much as 15 years in prison; the third charge requires a judge to impose a minimum prison sentence of 34½ months.

The victims in the shooting – one hit in the shoulder, the other injured so badly he had to be airlifted to Tampa General Hospital to save his life – told Highlands County detectives that three men, two of whom wore hoodies, had approached them outside a house on Marble Avenue. They asked to buy marijuana, but the victims broke and ran when one of the “buyers” pulled a revolver from his waistband and started firing.

Galarza’s co-defendants in the shooting – Tory Swain Daniels and Sebastian Martinez – testified against him during Galarza’s two-day trial. Swain-Daniels, who was 18 at the time of the crime, had remained in jail from the date of the shooting in December 2018 until June 2020, when he pled guilty to the crimes. He was then released on bond until he was sentenced to six years of probation in August. He was also deemed a violent felony offender of special concern.

Martinez, who also fled the county, was caught trying to cross from Texas to Mexico in November 2019. He also was extradited to Highlands County. The youth’s charges included two counts attempted first degree murder, possession of weapon, ammunition/concealed by a delinquent felon, and attempted robbery with a firearm. Detectives searched his house after the shooting and found marijuana and smoking tools, giving him possession of cannabis and drug paraphernalia charges.

After Martinez agreed to testify against Galarza, Estrada sentenced him to juvenile maximum imprisonment until he turns 21. Once he serves that sentence, he has to serve 200 hours of community service. Martinez also faces a two-year suspension of his driver’s license.

If he breaks probation after getting out of juvenile incarceration, prosecutors left an attempted first degree murder charge hanging over his head.

Judges consider the results of presentence investigations and other factors when determining the final sentence. Galarza fled to Wilson County, North Carolina, after the shooting and had to be extradited to Highlands County to face charges – which Estrada can consider.

Wawas open Thursday

The much-anticipated Wawa opening is almost here. Wally the Goose will be landing this week in the Lake Placid and south Sebring locations for the grand opening celebrations Thursday. The grand openings will follow a VIP preview on Wednesday.

Thursday’s festivities will kick off from 9-10 a.m. at U.S. 27 and Dal Hall Boulevard in Lake Placid. The Sebring store at 3838 U.S. 27 South will host its opening from 11 a.m. to noon.

A new mural by Keith Goodwin will be unveiled at the Lake Placid location. Wawa will present a $2,500 gift to the Lake Placid Mural Society for maintenance of its murals.

In addition to the ribbon cutting ceremonies with Wally and staff, Heartland Food Bank representatives will receive $2,500 “to officially kick off a week-long Lending a Helping Hoagie initiative,” a press release said. Lake Placid Police Department and Highlands County Fire Rescue will participate in Hoagies for Heroes, a hoagie-building competition to benefit charities chosen by the first responders.

Wally will the head north for the next ribbon cutting ceremony. Students and staff from Fred Wild Elementary School will receive a check for $389 from Wawa’s Cheers to the Classroom.

Sebring Police Department and City of Sebring Fire Department will be participating in the Hoagies for Heroes for their charities. Wawa Sr. Director of Operations Robert Yeatts and Director of Operations Dave Filano will be speaking at the event.

The doors will open at both locations at 8 a.m. and the first 200 guests through the doors will receive a limited edition Wawa T-shirt.

The north Sebring location at 6400 U.S. 27 North is slated to open Oct. 7, according to Wawa officials.

The three stores combined will provide about 120 jobs. Dan Temple will serve as area manager for the three stores. Alex Westlake will serve as general manager of the Lake Placid location, Tom Kramer will serve as general manager of the Sebring location at U.S. 27 South and Wael Musallam will serve as general manager of the new store opening at 6400 U.S. 27 North in Sebring on Oct. 7, according to the release.