The roads are dark and empty at 6:15. Passing through downtown, animated reindeer “fly” through the air in lights on the side of a skyscraper. At the end of the truncated commute, I snag a spot on the second floor of the parking garage—typically rare but plentiful today. In the hospital’s lobby, I pass the 20-foot tree—topped with a massive star more like a spiky sea creature—that has been up for a month. Its day is finally here. Despite the perks of the morning and the cheer around me, I’m glum, grumpy, bitter. I hate working on Christmas.
The morning goes smoothly enough; instead of opening presents, I open patient charts. I have the additional task today of assigning the newly admitted patients to doctors—an always thankless job, and often complaint-inducing from those who feel they’ve been given too many patients. Yet I hear no grievances. I look up my patients’ vital signs, labs, overnight events, and consultant recommendations and then head out to see my flock.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that patients are desperate to go home in the days leading up to holidays. One of my worst memories is telling a patient on Christmas Eve that her brain cancer, in remission for five years, was back. And I couldn’t discharge her to see her family for Christmas. Similarly, there are always physicians trying to trade shifts with other—aren’t you Jewish?—potentially willing colleagues. But once the day hits, we are resigned to our fates. The unlucky manage to muster up some Christmas spirit despite their circumstances.
I guess I’d forgotten this; as I see each patient, I remember it a little more. I get a “Thanks Doc” or a “Merry Christmas” from almost everyone. Even a couple, “I’m sorry you’re here’s.” Those I don’t deserve. So I try to make my patients feel like I want to be here. I hear about families and how they like to spend Christmas. I hear lines like, “I know I gotta be here. It’s what’s best.” We are both prioritizing long-term goals over short-term enjoyment. It feels like we are on the same page. The same team.
As I round and write notes, I know my family is staying at an Airbnb outside of Austin, cooking, drinking, and commemorating two of our clan who died this year. My mom sends me a few pictures. My boyfriend, who has stayed in town with me, texts me about his day driving around looking for a Waffle House to eat Christmas lunch (apparently this is a popular thing to do, and he has to go to three to avoid a line). I feel guilty about all of it.
I get a message about Feliz Navi-Nacho, the taco bar that some providers have organized for lunch. But I skip it. Frankly, I like hospital Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. They’re the same meal of turkey slices, stuffing, green beans, roll, and a slice of pie.
Waiting in line at the cafeteria for the free meal, I see the stack of apple pie slices on the counter. And then … wait … the pumpkin pie I’d expected but been denied at Thanksgiving was there! I excitedly shout “pumpkin” when asked what kind of pie I’d like. I meet my yearly quota (and ironically maximum) of one slice of pumpkin pie.
In the afternoon, I touch base with consultants. I expect to endure the grumpiness of residents and fellows, who are immensely overworked and underpaid. But again, I’m greeted with cheery voices and Merry Christmas’s. Even the serfs, who are often testy during standard work hours and had no choice but to work the holiday, have been seized by the Yuletide spirit. If they can let it happen, so can I. Unlike them, I am done with my training. Unlike many of my patients, I am healthy, have a home, and have the freedom to leave the hospital for the night.
I make it home before 6. My boyfriend grills brats for dinner, and we watch the Grinch with Jim Carrey. I fall asleep with 40 minutes left before the Grinch grows a heart and turns to “good,” but I do not doubt that the transformation happens. I am proof that it can.
As I write this on New Year’s Eve, my family is not getting together. My boyfriend left to see his family in Georgia, where I’m not allowed to travel due to COVID risks. I can’t go out. I had planned to see a friend tonight, but there’s a wintry mix coming, and I don’t want to risk getting stranded. In short, I’m at home alone. I wish I was at work today. The hospital has a great view of the fireworks. And people to watch them with.
Lindsey Ripley is an internal medicine physician.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com