By Caroline Cummings

This story was originally published on Feb. 5, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Two nurses who work in Minneapolis-area hospitals will be among the thousands of vaccinated health care workers at the Super Bowl on Sunday, after the NFL gifted free tickets as a token of appreciation.

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The NFL invited 7,500 vaccinated health care workers to be among the more than 20,000 fans in attendance at Sunday’s Super Bowl LV in Tampa, where the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the Kansas City Chiefs.

Most of the doctors and nurses are from Tampa and central Florida, but all 32 NFL teams selected health care workers from their communities. Heidi Briski-Gainer and Kelly Culver, longtime friends and nurses, sent letters to the NFL commissioner and the Minnesota Vikings and were selected for a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Both received their second vaccine dose in mid-January and they needed a signed letter from their hospitals to certify they are vaccinated.

“Everyone’s been through so much in 2020. It’s beyond the health care workers it’s everyone, and we’re just honored and grateful that we’re being thanked in such a huge way,” said Briski-Gainor.

The pair is already in Tampa.

Briski-Gainor and Culver work at St. John’s Hospital and Fairview Southdale, respectively, and said treating patients suffering from COVID-19 was unlike anything they’d ever experienced in their decades-long careers in nursing.

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They described the shock of witnessing how rapidly patients became sick.

“It was super stressful, like, physically, emotionally, all of it,” Briski-Gainor said.

“I had to talk myself into going to work every day,” remarked Culver, with her friend nodding in agreement.

But the gift from the NFL — free tickets to the game and special game day experiences all while masking and distancing — is one they say they will never forget. It’s a welcomed sign of gratitude for their work and that of so many others in their profession.

“It’s just such a unique experience to be with all those health care workers that day,” said Briski-Gainor.

When the game ends and the trophy is awarded, the paid will go back to work and continue their fight against COVID-19 so normalcy can triumph once again. The promise of vaccines for more people motivates them to keep going.

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“The surge hit around Thanksgiving, and it was just like we had already run this marathon,” said Culver. “So the vaccine came out and it’s like, oh I can keep running, I can keep running to the end of this because there is an end in sight.”

Caroline Cummings