Why this emergency physician is thankful this holiday season

I hugged them longer than any 10- or 11-year-old wants to be hugged by their mom, and tried not to cry tears of gratitude that they were in my arms. The last kid their age I saw was the one I had resuscitated and admitted to the PICU just hours before, and it took my breath away to think about that happening to my sons. I had to make one of my post-night shift special stops at their before-school program just to have them in my arms because “what if …”

That morning my sons, as they always do, cooperatively let me shower them with love, even in front of their friends. Surfer dude hair is far less cool when your mom is kissing the top of it, but they know I have rough nights, and on some level, they must intuit that I need these hugs. When you witness a mother nearly lose her son, it makes you hold your own that much tighter.

All of us in emergency medicine have those shifts where all we want to do after is hug our kids. We are thankful for family, friends, and health like everyone else, but unlike everyone else, we routinely see people on the worst day of their lives. Ours is a gratitude borne from being daily witness to pain, death, and heartache. When it comes time to contemplate my blessings, I give a different kind of thanks.

Gratitude for a B

I am thankful for the simple privilege of sending my children outside to play in the sunlight. After sending too many children upstairs to lie under the glare of hospital lights, I cherish every sprint mine make in the backyard and every ball they throw to each other.

I am thankful for my son’s B in science. I have witnessed unconditional love given by parents of a developmentally delayed child his age who required total care for basic activities of daily living. They paced in my ED all night stressing about her health. Their relief and elation with her perfect lab test results gave me some much-needed perspective about science test results. When other parents worry about their child’s health, worrying about straight As seems silly.

I am thankful for my sons lazing in my king-sized bed watching a movie with sleepy eyes. I am thankful they’re not fretting next to a stretcher watching a doctor with wide, fearful eyes the way two young brothers recently watched me as I fought to help their dad breathe during his final weeks. I have seen too much shock like those boys experienced after an x-ray ordered for pneumonia diagnosed lung cancer, and just like that, their dad went from making plans for his summer to a terminal cancer patient. I pray my own sons’ childhood keeps them naïve as long as possible to how cruel fate can be.

I am thankful for simple joys like a spoonful of ice cream. My first patient on my first hospital rotation was near dying from ovarian cancer. There was not much help I could think to offer as a third-year med student, so I brought her favorite ice cream, because if I were dying, that’s what I’d want. That Godiva white chocolate raspberry was the last ice cream she ate, and I still think of her every time I eat Godiva. When I’m on my deathbed, someone please bring me Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough. I will relish every bite the way she did.

I am thankful for the knowledge as I start planning for the holidays that if I burn the bread pudding for Christmas breakfast or give a gift that results in a broken foot, like last year’s hover board, there’s always next year. One Christmas Eve, I was feeling sorry for myself that I had to work when a woman my age with stage IV ovarian cancer came in for abdominal pain. “She has four kids, and this is her last Christmas on this Earth. Try to get her home,” was what her oncologist told me when I paged him. Looking forward to next Christmas is a gift that not everyone has.

Every chance

I am thankful for the people who love me. Those of us in emergency medicine will never use the cliché “I can’t imagine life without them” because we can imagine life without loved ones. We see the forgotten nursing home residents and the lonely souls with no one else. Perhaps the most emotionally spent I’ve been after a shift was the night I sat at the bedside of a terminal cancer patient holding his hand and crying as I explained he did not have much longer to live, and asked whether he wanted to die in the hospital or at home. “I don’t have anyone at home. Please admit me and drug me up, so I don’t have to die alone and in pain,” was his response, and it gutted me.

I am thankful for every chance I have to tell someone I love him. Sometimes the most critical part of the critical care we provide is encouraging family to take a moment with our patients before we intubate them in case it is the last time they talk. Sometimes it is.

Witnessing a final “I love you” from a wife to a husband or a son to a father before I intubate a patient who may never come off the vent makes me grateful I am able to say those words to my own loved ones. Saying “I love you” when my son crawls in bed next to me means everything.

Many people remember to be more thankful after the latest tragedy in the news, and they declare they’ll be sure to show their loved ones they care from now on. But what about today? Who is showing them love today? In emergency medicine, we don’t need a natural catastrophe or mass shooting to spark gratitude. We see tragedies every day. Every person I meet on the worst or too often last day of his life has given me profound gratitude in my own life. I like to think I speak more boldly, laugh more loudly, and love more fiercely. I show my loved ones I care every chance I get. You should, too.

Sandra Scott Simons is an emergency physician.   This article originally appeared in Emergency Medicine News.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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