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If you want to see Super Bowl 55’s hero, you’ll have to tune in early

John Romano | Along with inviting 7,500 health care workers to the game, the NFL will honor a Tampa General Hospital nurse in a pre-game ceremony.
Tampa General Hospital's ICU nurse manager Suzie Dorner will be part of the Super Bowl 55 pre-game ceremony recognizing America's health care workers during the pandemic.
Tampa General Hospital's ICU nurse manager Suzie Dorner will be part of the Super Bowl 55 pre-game ceremony recognizing America's health care workers during the pandemic. [ Courtesy of Tampa General Hospital ]
Published Feb. 5

TAMPA — Her story is not unique, which is what makes it so important.

On a night when a bunch of football players will capture the world’s attention, a lone woman from Tampa will be there to remind us how we take everyday heroes for granted. Her name won’t sound familiar and, chances are, will be forgotten by halftime.

But for a few minutes before Super Bowl 55 on Sunday night, Suzie Dorner just might bring you to the verge of tears. And ideally, that’s something none of us will forget in the coming months.

Dorner is a nurse. The manager of the COVID-19 ICU unit at Tampa General Hospital, to be exact. And she was chosen by the NFL and Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl committee to represent the millions of health care workers across the nation.

“Hopefully, it gives them the confidence and knowledge that the entire world is behind them,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “And we’re proud of everything they’ve accomplished.”

This is what the sports world does best. On a near-daily basis, it reminds us of heartbreak and joy. Success and disappointment. Quests and shortcomings. Mostly, it teaches us that winning is precious only because we’ve all experienced loss.

Dorner, 31, had taken over as an ICU manager only four months before the pandemic hit. By the time last summer rolled around, she was changing her staff’s duties, expectations and protocols. Nurses had to take on additional responsibilities to cut down on the number of hospital workers at a patient’s bedside. Shifts were long, and respites were rare.

Eventually, Dorner got the hospital chaplain to pay daily visits to her staff, just to offer an ear for anyone who needed to talk.

“I saw things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” she said. “At the peak of the pandemic, I walked into my 18-bed medical ICU and every single patient was on life support, they were all intubated. We had several on continuous dialysis, several on heart and lung bypass. And it wasn’t just older patients, we had 20- and 30-year-olds in my unit. It was hard to see some of those things.

“We’re all seeing and watching stuff in the media about the coronavirus like everyone else, but then you come to work and see it in real life. Processing that is very hard.”

Nurse manager Suzie Dorner leads a team huddle in the MICU of Tampa General Hospital on Jan. 20, 2021.
Nurse manager Suzie Dorner leads a team huddle in the MICU of Tampa General Hospital on Jan. 20, 2021. [ Courtesy of Tampa General Hospital ]

If you inquire about stories from the ICU, Dorner will offer a menu. You want sad? You want heartwarming? You want scary? She has them all, including stories that cross from one emotion to another.

At one point she had an elderly woman and her adult daughter in separate rooms. The mother was fading fast, and the daughter was on life support. The daughter was unable to speak but was just conscious enough to understand what was happening. The staff asked if she wanted her mother in the room with her, and she shook her head yes.

They brought them together, arranged their beds side by side, and the daughter held her mother’s hand as she watched her pass away.

“We can’t allow other family members in so the nurses take on that additional emotional toll,” Dorner said. “With other patients, there’s a family member there at the bedside holding their hand as they pass away. With COVID patients, it’s usually a nurse there holding the patient’s hand. It’s the nurse who is facilitating FaceTime calls with a family so they can say their goodbyes.

“So, yeah, it definitely takes a huge, emotional and mental toll on everyone.”

The NFL has invited 7,500 frontline workers who have been vaccinated to Super Bowl 55 as a thank you for their services. Based on the average ticket price for the game, that’s roughly $18 million worth of tickets being donated to the community.

Dorner will be one of three honorary captains — along with Marine Corps veteran James Martin of Pittsburgh and educator Trimaine Davis of Los Angeles — to take part in the coin toss ceremony. The NFL is being coy about what the ceremony will entail, but a camera crew followed Dorner at work and recorded an interview with her.

“These are people I didn’t even know existed, and they have been our MVPs” Higgins said. “It’s been incredibly eye-opening in terms of the courage and perseverance they’ve had behind the scenes. They’re going to be celebrated in a very big way.”

Dorner will be the focus, but the important thing is what she represents. Or, rather who she represents.

There are Suzie Dorners in every hospital in every community across the nation. Their work is selfless and indispensable. And they typically persevere without anyone outside the ICU’s corridors understanding what they’ve been through.

So before the kickoff and the shouting, before the chicken wings and second guessing, before the next day arrives and the world moves on, make sure you catch the pregame ceremony and its very special storyline.

After all, it’s why we watch sports isn’t it? It’s the chance to see a hero.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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