This year I worked December 23rd, 24th and 25th from noon to 10pm. There is no doubt that working Christmas sucks, and this year I felt especially sorry for myself because I had to work Thanksgiving too. I also thought I got stuck with the worst shift on Christmas because I came in too early to have lunch with my family but got out too late for any kind of dinner or even desert. However, this year I had to admit that working Christmas has certain charms. This is my list.
First, I didn’t have to go to my in-laws’ house. Where to even begin? This is a blog post all of its own. Suffice it to say, now that I have a teen ager, I got to receive all kinds of video-snaps documenting the drama, with my daughter’s hilarious commentary. Apparently, it all culminated with my son breaking an ornament, Grandma thought my husband did it and that’s when the gloves came off. It was a much more enjoyable way to experience Christmas at Abuelitas.
Second, I felt missed and appreciated by my family.
Third, the camaraderie. Misery loves company, right? There is a unique sense of fraternity on Christmas at the hospital. I got sign out from my partner Matt, whom I have known since residency. “How many Christmases have we spent together Matt?” He was quiet for a moment. He looked like he was concentrating. I thought he was trying to recall every Christmas we were on call together, because he has that kind of memory. But he said “The worst Christmas I ever spent on call was in Residency. I had a patient all teed up for discharge. You know how people want to get home for Christmas. This guy was really looking forward to it. His wife was on her way to pick him up when she was involved in an accident. She died at the scene. I had to tell the patient. But I wanted to be the one to do it. You know. You want to be sure it gets done well, by someone who cares.” Yeah. I do know. That’s the kind of guy Matt is. All my partners are like that. How could I complain about spending Christmas with such great people?
My worst Christmas on call was back when I was still working nights. It was actually Christmas Eve. I got a consult from Neurosurgery for a brain death exam. You have to have two different doctors certify brain death before organs can be harvested for donation. This woman was a healthy 42-year-old who had been out with friends. She went into the bathroom and collapsed on the floor with a massive intracranial hemorrhage. She still had the makeup on from her night out. Her husband was sitting on a stool in the corner of the room. He didn’t look at me. I still think about them on Christmas and pray for them. I wonder how his Christmases are, if he are able to enjoy it at all, being the anniversary of her death.
So, we type on, side by side at the computers. In general, Matt talks a lot, and so do I.
Matt: “Do you think you can you learn empathy, or are you born with it?”
Me: “Empathy and sympathy are different you know.”
Matt: “At Nuremberg, they defined evil as the complete absence of empathy.”
Type. Type. Type.
I am grateful I get to work people who are the intersection of very smart and very compassionate (or empathetic?). I am grateful for their humor and the human connection.
Fourth, the camaraderie with the patients. My first patient on Christmas Eve: 88-year-old with Lewy Body dementia. When I walked into her room, she had a big hat on with the brim pulled down over her eyes. Everything I asked her she said, “That’s my own business!”. Next patient: Mary, 89 years old and pretty healthy until about a week ago. Married 68 years. She wanted me to know they were “good years”. I got to hear the highlights of that beautiful life, compacted into about 5 minutes. Next, Mr. R., shot in the head in Iraq, blind in one eye and PTSD. He won’t stay in the hospital long enough to get treatment or take his medications…I wish I could have done more for him. Mrs. C. also 88 years old. She fell down one step but managed to bang her head and get a concussion. This was after the family Christmas party, at which she had had a lot of fun. The family came back and picked her up and brought her to the ED. They had crazy Christmas sweaters on and Mrs. C. had a Christmas Pedicure, which she refused to have covered by a sheet. They laughed so generously. I told them I might show up at their Christmas party next year. I am so lucky to meet all these amazing people on Christmas.
Lastly, Christmas – and New Year’s too for that matter – can be sad. There are disappointments, family conflict, seasonal effective disorder, stress, fatigue and exhaustion. When you go to work, you miss all that. You do the thing you actually know how to do well. You feel productive and life has a sense of purpose. I would still much rather be home with my family. But I will allow that working Christmas has its perks too.