Jessica Castro was scared. But also proud. Her husband, Michael Castro, a nurse in the Digestive Disease Center at Mayo Clinic in Florida and a Lt. Col. in the Florida Air National Guard, would soon be deployed, spending seven months in Qatar. Which meant Jessica, a lead technologist in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, would be running things on the home front alone.
"It was stressful to think about," Jessica says. Especially trying to imagine how she'd be both Mom and Dad to sons Jae, 16, and Caleb, 12, while keeping up her responsibilities at work. She decided to talk with her supervisors, Kim Little and Caroline Harlow, about the situation.
"I asked if I could come in an hour later and take a shorter lunch break, and also have flexibility to leave early to pick Caleb up on days his school had an early release," Jessica says. "Their response was amazing. They told me I could adjust my schedule, and not to worry about a thing. That took such a burden off of me. After that conversation I was so relieved I broke down in tears."
To Little and Harlow, the response was nothing special.
"We do things like this for our staff because we care for them," Little says. "We've been mothers and daughters and sisters ourselves. We know people have life situations come up. We do, too. We did what we'd do for anyone. It didn't feel unique to say yes to the request."
It felt unique to Jessica, though. So unique that she decided to nominate Kim and Caroline for a Patriot Award from ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve), a program sponsored by the Department of Defense.
When Jessica learned they'd been selected to receive the award, she arranged for a surprise ceremony during a lab leadership meeting on Feb. 8. In addition to a representative from the ESGR, Jessica invited Vickie Trace, laboratory operations manager, Gretchen Johns, M.D., laboratory medical director, and Frank Ray, laboratory administrator, to be on hand for the presentation.
"I was completely surprised," Harlow says. "I couldn't figure out why there were all of these people in our meeting room."
She and Little were both reaching for tissues once they learned the reason for the crowd.
"To be recognized at that level was a shock," Harlow says. "To have our government, our military recognize us was incredibly humbling."
Both she and Little say the honor is shared with their staff.
"We were the ones who got to say yes to Jessica's request, but our entire staff pitched in to pick up any slack," Little says. "Our team really looks out for each other and steps up for each other."
Jessica wasn't the only one planning a surprise that week. Little and Harlow were busy making secret plans of their own. Mike had told Jessica he'd be coming home on Sunday, Feb. 13. But he'd actually be arriving two days earlier and had reached out to Jessica's supervisors to ask if he could surprise Jessica at work. They were delighted to help make it happen.
"We were playing a game behind the scenes that day," Little says.
They'd given Mike the code name "Eagle," and each time he updated Little on his whereabouts she'd update the rest of the group that was in on the surprise.
"The Eagle has landed," she texted when Mike's plane landed. Soon after: "The Eagle is looking for a parking place."
Meanwhile, Jessica was getting hungry.
"It was around lunchtime, and I asked my colleague if she wanted to go to lunch," Jessica says. "She randomly started asking me questions about employee competencies. I know now she was stalling."
Then, out of the corner of her eye, Jessica noticed a pair of boots.
"I looked up, and it was emotional from there," Jessica says.
And not only for Jessica. There were more than a few tears shed as she and Mike wrapped their arms around each other.
"When I saw her melt into his arms, it was like all the stress she'd been carrying went away," Little says. "It was a very sweet moment. I've seen reunions like that online, but to see it in person and know what's gone on behind it was incredible."