NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – There was food, music and sunshine everywhere on Somerset Street on Tuesday as Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital thanked its health care heroes for treating 1,147 COVID-19 patents since the first one passed through the doors in March.

Although the hospital is still caring for a handful of COVID-19 patients, the surge has subsided to allow the administration a chance to celebrate its doctors, nurses and others front-line personnel for their hard work and dedication in the face of an unprecedented health care crisis.

A stretch of Somerset Street was closed off and filled with 20 food trucks offering everything from empanadas to pierogis to rice balls.

Sign Up for Bridgewater/Raritan Newsletter
Our newsletter delivers the local news that you can trust.

Whether it was fare from Flying Pie Guy or morsels from Maddalenas Cheese Cake, the food and festive atmosphere seemed to be a welcomed relief for the workers – many of whom wore red T-shirts emblazoned with “Heroes Work Here” on the back.

“The way to someone’s heart is through food, so this is definitely a step in the right direction,” said Vanessa Nazario, the RWJUH’s director of diversity and inclusion. “This is a great way to get the hospital community to come out as one.”

Heroes+ is a week-long celebration launched by President and CEO John J. Gantner. On Monday, they enjoyed an ice cream social. On Wednesday, it’s Hawaiian shirt day complete with a luau-type party. On Thursday, everyone will be munching on subs.

Gantner said he added the “+” to the title because “heroes” was insufficient.

“It’s hard to find words, in fact, it’s impossible to find words to describe how this team responded, what they did and the spirit that they maintained to the healing profession throughout the entire episode,” he said. “And so, people have been talking about heroes and it’s a label you see used regularly. That’s all well-intended, but from my point of view, heroes doesn’t begin to explain the way these people performed over the past four months.”

From all accounts, it had been a daily, dizzying spiral of hospitalizations, personal protective equipment, ventilators, long hours and prayers. Lots of prayers.

Tony Almeida, RWJUH’s director of food and nutrition, remembers one day at COVID-19’s surge when a young nurse came into the cafeteria and sat across from him. As she took off both her masks, she could finally shed the stress of the day.

“She just took a deep breath and just started to eat her lunch,” Almeida said. “That was something that will stay with me.”

On the darkest days, there were rays of light, he said. For instance, he said about 3,500 meals were donated to the hospital for organizations and restaurants in hopes of lifting their spirits.

Of course, having 20 food trucks lined up and down Somerset Street is like chicken soup – or at least oven-baked pizza – for the health care hero’s soul.

“You can see the smiles on their faces here that they’re just excited to be out here,” he said.