Ed Yong was a civil engineer in his native Cameroon. But when he came to the United States almost 30 years ago, he switched careers and went into health care.

After four months in the hospital with life-threatening COVID-19, a virus he likely picked up on the job, Yong, 60, has no regrets about his second career at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis. He is proud to have risen to the challenge when the hospital floor he worked on was converted to COVID care earlier this year. Even though he became seriously ill, Yong hopes to repay the coworkers who lovingly cared for him by returning to work at some point after his expected Dec. 30 discharge.

"I just like helping people," Yong said this week in an interview with an editorial writer.

As this trying year comes to a close, it's tempting to dwell on the graduations, athletic competitions and family gatherings foregone to fight the pandemic. Christmas won't feel the same either, but the looming holiday feels brighter when considering an unwrappable but priceless gift: the unwavering dedication of Minnesota's medical providers, long-term care staff, public health professionals, and first responders. National Guard members also stepped up to aid with testing and long-term care.

They've all been on high alert for a year now, with the first reports of a mysterious illness sweeping through China trickling out in late 2019. The battle against the virus has been nonstop since then, involving not just long hours but considerable risk caring for crushing numbers of patients.

One Minnesota care provider, David Kolleh, who worked in a Twin Cities long-term care center, lost his life to COVID. Others, like Yong, became ill. Yet countless lives have been saved because these workers gave up time with their own families and overcame exhaustion to track outbreaks, research new treatments and continue to provide care. And as nerves fray after months of restrictions and the new vaccine remains in short supply, renewed appreciation for front-line workers is in order.

According to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development, 495,030 people work in health care and social assistance. The state's hospitals alone employ just over 115,000 people. About 1,500 people work for the Minnesota Department of Health.

There are too many to thank individually, but some personal commendation is in order. One deserving special mention is Kris Ehresmann, the Health Department's director of the infectious disease epidemiology, prevention and control division. She has worked countless evenings and weekends to combat COVID. She's also been unfailingly calm and accessible as tensions inevitably lead to questions about public health decisionmaking.

Special gratitude also is in order for the state's long-term care workers. "Every day, knowing the risks involved, senior care committed staff members make the daily decision to walk through their walls of fear and our doors, to minister to the needs of our residents," said Sholom CEO Barbara Klick, whose oversees her organization's Twin Cities long-term care centers. "Every single day they display courage and love to a remarkable degree."

It's also important to remember that pandemic caregivers include far more than doctors and nurses. Staff who aid nurses, transport patients and maintain facilities, are vital but often unsung.

As the holiday settles in, workers like Tyana Chatham-McCaskill, 25, will be on the job Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. She's a lab technician with Hennepin Healthcare, going into multiple patients' rooms each day to do blood draws. She moved to Minnesota this year to be closer to family but because of social distancing, hasn't been able to see them very often.

Her job has made her cry in the car from exhaustion after work. But it's also included moments of elation, when a patient suffering from severe COVID overcomes it. She's grateful for the chance to help patients but understandably weary.

Chatham-McCaskill said she understands that Minnesotans are tired, too, but she has a message for them: Staying the course helps health care workers like her. "I would just say please sacrifice for us, because we are sacrificing for you."