Gibsonton resident Christy Atwell was one of 7,500 local healthcare workers to attend the Super Bowl thanks to tickets from the NFL.

The NFL found a very special way to thank many of the healthcare professionals who risked their lives on the front lines during 2020. In late January, 7,500 local essential workers received free tickets to Super Bowl LV where they were treated to a first-class experience at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium, including free food and drinks, tickets to the TikTok tailgate featuring Miley Cyrus and more.

Gibsonton resident Christy Atwell works as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT) at Tampa General Hospital and Manatee Memorial Hospital. In her position at Manatee Memorial, she saw many patients with COVID-19.

“COVID is a nightmare,” she said. “A patient dies from COVID complications every single shift that I work.”

She was thrilled to win a ticket to the Super Bowl after receiving her second COVID-19 vaccination.

“When I opened the email that I won, I was in shock,” she said. “This was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I will probably never get the chance to attend an event like this ever again.”

Atwell found the appreciation the healthcare workers received at the event heartwarming.

“We had lanyards we were to wear with a badge saying ‘Healthcare Hero’ so after the concert, as we went to find our seats in the stadium, the employees would see us and clap and thank us,” she said. “I almost felt embarrassed by the whole situation because I definitely don’t feel like a hero most days.”

As one of only 150,000 RRTs in the country, Atwell decided she wanted to honor those in her profession at the Super Bowl.

“Most people have no idea what a respiratory therapist is, and rightfully so. We were spread thin before the pandemic and now with this being a respiratory virus … it’s busy,” she explained. “I went in search of RRTs that have died of COVID during the pandemic. I was able to find the names of about 25 RRTs and I put their initials on the back of my shirt.”

She then thought about adding some names of nurses that lost their lives and was shocked to find that upwards of 1,500 nurses have succumbed to COVID-19.

“So I decided to add stats to my shirt,” she explained. “1,500 nurses, 300 plus doctors and over 2,900 healthcare workers have died while trying to care for COVID-19 patients.”

Riverview resident Brandi Johnson works at Advanced Foot & Ankle Specialists as a podiatric surgeon.

She had never attended an event like the Super Bowl before, which made the experience even better for her.

“The NFL went above and beyond for healthcare workers with pregame food and beverages, the pregame show by Miley Cyrus, a N95 mask with LV and a healthcare symbol to separate out the healthcare workers and free parking and badges with lanyards,” she said.

Samantha Concepcion is 29 years old and will be starting nursing school in April. She has been working in Tampa General Hospital’s Sterile Processing Department as an analyst since 2018. Born in Puerto Rico, she now lives in Riverview.

“Before living in Florida and Texas, I really did not understand how football and Super Bowl seemed to be like a religion to some people,” she said. “After attending the Super Bowl and tailgate events, I can honestly say that I am sold. It was honestly one of the best experiences, especially with everything that has been going on with COVID. It pretty much solidified that all the hard work that has been put in by healthcare workers and first responders has all be worth it.”

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Kate Quesada is the Multimedia Manager for the Osprey Observer Newspapers. She has been working for the paper in various positions since 2005 when she graduated with her Masters degree in mass communications. She lives in Valrico with her husband Mike and son Dylan.