RJ Gardner, an Aya Healthcare travel nurse, earned a nice surprise from the Good Morning Football crew on Monday morning: an exclusive ticket to Super Bowl LV.
"Very surprised, taken aback," Gardner said Monday on GMFB. "I think what I do is a gift for me -- getting to help people. I'd work seven days a week but my wife likes me home. I'm a little bit speechless. Thank y'all very much."
Gardner is one of 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers who will be in attendance for Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aya Healthcare had requests for 3,000 nurses to go to one of the epicenters of the virus in New York/New Jersey, and Gardner decided he wanted to go where he was needed most. Gardner ran a COVID unit for five months in New Jersey, and went through excruciating 13-hour days for months on end with his longest shift going 27 straight days.
"First five months was nothing short of a war zone," Gardner recalled. "Our patient ratios were double what we're used to, our patients were extremely sick. Running out of drugs, running out of supplies -- everything was makeshift -- just trying to keep our patients alive."
Gardner's courage and resolve was instilled in him well before he became a nurse. Born outside of New Orleans, Gardner derives from a family of heroes, taking after his aunt and grandfather by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard. He was part of the search and rescue team after Hurricane Katrina ravaged through the Gulf Coast in 2005, and Gardner and his team received medals for the heroism. After Katrina, Gardner was in a car accident that left him with a broken back and a long stay in the ICU for many weeks. That experience, along with those endured during his rescue efforts post-Katrina, encouraged Gardner to become a nurse.
Gardner is currently on assignment in the ICU at Tanner Medical Center just outside Atlanta. With his team of nurses behind him as he received his Super Bowl LV ticket on GMFB, Gardner accepted his well-deserved thank you from the NFL and displayed the gracious efforts of those still fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic.
"Even before, each day's a gift, but you see these patients who are so sick, and I love what I do, I'm lucky to have a job that I enjoy, but it makes those moments at home even more precious," Gardner said. "The crew that I work with here, we've become a close-knit family. Jersey, my son, was so young, I didn't miss too much, but now, 17 months running around, playing -- I get to FaceTime him on a break here and there but it definitely makes it hard. But I'm getting to help other families, so it's very rewarding for me as well."