Had it not been for the sign pointing to the nearby emergency room entrance, the campus of Nacogdoches Memorial Hospital could have been easily mistaken for a school Thursday afternoon as graduates from high schools, universities and kindergarten lined up for a celebration.

The hospital hosted a combined graduation ceremony for employees and family members Thursday since so many schools are limiting in-person commencement and grade promotion events.

More than 20 graduates participated in the socially distanced ceremony in Blount Park, just south of the hospital, walking out to “Pomp and Circumstance” playing over a loudspeaker and welcomed by a cheering crowd of nurses, hospital administrators and family members.

For some graduates, Thursday’s event was their only in-person ceremony.

“It’s something we didn’t get to do at SFA so it’s a good day. Thank you to the hospital for doing this for us,” said Diana Sifuentes, an exercise physiologist who works in the hospital’s cardiac rehab unit.

Sifuentes and Isania Bazan both graduated from Stephen F. Austin with masters degrees in physiology, and both began working in cardiac rehab as student interns.

“It didn’t really feel like we had graduated. We didn’t get to walk. This was very nice,” Bazan said.

For both of them, the ceremony capped off the trials of working a full-time job and finishing a high-level degree.

“Literally we would go from work to school to home and study. We didn’t have weekends because we would spend them in the library studying,” Sifuentes said.

Both said they wanted to pursue doctorates, just not right now. Cardiac rehab physiologists work eight to 12 hours per day getting patients with heart problems back on their feet.

“We help them change their lifestyle, help them learn about their medication, learn about proper nutrition and how to exercise properly. We create their exercise program,” Bazan said.

Sifuentes is originally from Nacogdoches and said she plans to stay at the hospital for a while but would like to work in a large city. Bazan is from the Houston area, and said she has grown to love working in a smaller community.

“Coming from the city to Nac was a big difference. I really like the community here. The patients, they all went to school together, they all know each other. I like the atmosphere here,” Bazan said.

Other institutions represented at Thursday’s graduation include the University of Texas-Arlington, Central Heights, Alto, Mount Enterprise, Central, Regents Academy, Woden, Cushing and Nacogdoches high schools and Cushing Elementary.

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