For Dr Elizabeth Poorman, a primary care doctor and a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, her first experience of working during Christmas was tough. She was an intern in the intensive care unit (ICU) and said that whilst “some businesses slow down around Christmas time, that doesn’t happen to hospitals. Deaths tend to peak in the last week of December. It had been an especially busy month in my ICU, and many of our patients had died.”

She said, “my co-residents and I spent Christmas Day managing ventilators, checking blood pressures, calling families, and consulting on some of the sickest patients in the emergency room. I felt a solidarity with my patients, the families that came to visit them, and my co-workers. We were all in this together.”

This solidarity with patients was also visible to Jenny Hughes, a post-foundation training doctor, in December 2014, when she found herself working the Christmas shift. During her shift, an extremely ill, young woman passed on and her elderly mother had to be called in.

“My main emotion was one of dread. I had broken bad news before, but this was Christmas Day. I took the mother into a side room with a nurse and had to bite the inside of my mouth as I told her,” Hughes said.

However, she was surprised to find that afterwards, the mother gave her a hug and thanked her for being brave. “Here is a woman receiving some of the worst news a person can hear, and she was concerned for me,” exclaimed Hughes.

Creativeness goes a long way

Poorman’s experience was greatly helped by the nurses who decorated the hospital with snowmen and paper snowflakes with the doctors’ names on them. The festive spirit was also upheld with Christmas carols and a traditional potluck.

In fact, this sense of togetherness and desire to inject joviality into proceedings can be seen in hospitals all around the world.

Nurses at Baylor Surgical Hospital at Fort Worth put up a Christmas tree made of gloves. Photo credit: onlyanurse.com
Nurses at Baylor Surgical Hospital at Fort Worth put up a Christmas tree made of gloves. Photo credit: onlyanurse.com

However, it is not just patients or each other, hospital staff realise that supporting the families of patients helps to support the patients as well. The disease Management Clinic at LIFT (Living in a Fit Tennessee) Wellness Centre in America, gifts every patient in the Diabetes and Congestive Heart Failure Clinic a stocking full of personal gifts and fruit. They also collect canned goods to distribute to less well-to-do families.

The Jackson Madison County General Hospital in America also gifts goodie bags to families waiting in the critical care department whilst another department gifts a toy to every child patient on Christmas Day.

Going an extra mile for the children

For children, hospitals seem to put in extra effort on Christmas Day.

“If you had to spend Christmas anywhere, you’d spend it in a children’s hospital,” explained ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultant Dr Mike Rothera, at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital. “You go onto the ward and it’s like Santa’s grotto, and the children get a huge amount of attention. Each year, the same Dr Malcolm Lewis dresses up as Santa, delivers presents and poses for photographs with the patients.

Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, volunteers knitted Santa blankets and caps for their newly born babies. Photo credit: @stevemellon412/Twitter/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Magee-Womens Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, volunteers knitted Santa blankets and caps for their newly born babies. Photo credit: @stevemellon412/Twitter/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

But, it is not always plain sailing.

“We do have terrible things that happen. We have children who are not going to recover,” lamented Dr Rothera. “We have children with tumours who we operate on and know they may not survive. I spoke to parents last week whose son died on 23rd December last year and that was very difficult.”

Yet, Dr Lewis was determined, saying, “these illnesses will be there forever and I want to make sure that the children have a life, and that we help them cope with illness rather than their lives being dominated by disease.”

Working on Christmas can be rewarding

For Hughes, “the question is, why do we as a profession find the thought of working at this time of the year so galling when, in reality, it can actually be the most uplifting time to be at work?”

“Every patient I spoke to thanked me for being there, and some relatives that I’d never met gave me a card,” she said. “When I started working, I was surprised at the lack of morale among staff, and the rudeness I encountered. It is exhausting [and] you end up resenting your career choice.”

Yet on the Christmas shift she had been dreading, her “utopian view of the NHS came true. We all worked together, there was no back-biting, and the patients’ indomitable spirit put a spring in my step.” MIMS

Read more:
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Ho-ho-holiday disorders: When seasonal holidays are not as merry
Should healthcare professional accept gifts from their patients?

Sources:
https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/views-from-the-nhs-frontline/2014/dec/22/nhs-staff-dread-working-christmas-fills-pride
http://blog.hornellp.com/healthcare/how-hospitals-spread-holiday-cheer-for-patients-families-and-staff
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11308596/How-does-a-childrens-hospital-cope-at-Christmas.html
https://www.statnews.com/2017/12/22/hospitals-labs-holiday-decor/
https://www.statnews.com/2017/12/22/christmas-hospital-patients-doctors/