I often forget it’s Christmas. And Thanksgiving. And the Superbowl. Because I work in the Emergency Department, when I have off Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I forget that you are thanking God it’s Friday while I am off to work.
“Meet me for happy hour!”, you say.
“I am on my way to work”, I say.
“You’re always working when the fun stuff is going on”, you say.
“Thanks. I hadn’t noticed.”
This Christmas, I drove two hours to spend two hours with my family before driving two hours back home to make it in time for my Christmas shift.
“You work every Christmas!”, they said.
“I was here all day last year”, I said, somewhat disappointed that they remember the years that I’m absent more than the years that I’m present.
Working holidays, evenings, and weekends is part of the job. I don’t really despair in that. In general, the hospital is full of people who accept that reality.
“Are you serious?”, the consultant asked.
“Unfortunately, I am.”, I said. The patient needed a procedure that I am unable to do. I wish that I could do everything. Actually, I take that back, I don’t. And I wish that things wouldn’t befall people at inconvenient times or that people wouldn’t do the silly things that wind them up in my care.
“You realize it’s Christmas.”, he said.
I almost forgot.
The hardest part about having conversations like this is that it forces me to get defensive; to be more of a patient advocate than I already am or more than I need to be. It makes me question that our conversation about what is in the best interest of the patient is only one sided and dependent on what is in the best interest of you. And I don’t like that.
“I’ve barely been able to spend any time with my family today”, he said.
I could mention that I didn’t either but I don’t feel the need to one up him. I could mention that he is on call and so should have expected calls like mine. I’m about to tell him how sorry I am and how being away from families leads to the burnout so pervasive among physicians.
“You guys in the ER really ruin things for everyone else.” He had to go there.
I bite my tongue. I need him to come in. My patient needs him to come in.
“I wish there was a way around this.”, I said. At this point, that was a lie. “I will make sure that everything is here and ready for you so that things will go as quickly as possible so you can get back home.” It’s an empty promise. I have little control over the fact that we are short staffed, that the waiting room has other people in it, that everyone here is missing their families. On the upside for him, we all want him in and out as fast as possible so that we don’t have to listen to his complaining.
And it is quick, less than 45 minutes until he is out the door, back to his family while we are all still left behind. The fact of the conversation seems silly now.
I wish we could all agree to treat each other better, to recognize that we all share in the difficulty of our schedules caring for other human beings; something that at times like these feels less like a calling.
My sister texts me the family photo that was taken after all the presents were opened. I’m not in it. She apologizes that we didn’t remember to take it before I left.
There are two kinds of patients that come to the ED on Christmas. The first are the ones who really don’t want to be there. The others are the ones who really do; the homeless, the depressed, the mentally ill, the lonely or displaced. In us, at least for a little while, they find the family that they crave. In them, we find the reason we are so willing to leave our own.