For the Americans who spent them there, hospitals were a special place to be for the holidays. That sounds odd, but for the many thousands of patients and caregivers in them on Christmas or New Year’s, hospitals are a great holiday paradox. You may have missed Christmas morning and dinner at home, you could not blow horns with happy masses of friends when the ball dropped at midnight in Times Square, you were sick or caring for the sick when others were celebrating, but you may have been lucky enough to share the special spirit that can be found in hospitals during such holidays.
It is a spirit that’s like an old family holiday recipe; not written down anywhere, made with pinches of this and a little of that, and spiced with flavors that are bittersweet but go together well. Then it’s all blended and baked to produce a special taste difficult to describe to someone who has never shared it, but instantly recognizable to those who have.
The spirit may first derive from the shared experience of loss that often breaks down barriers between strangers and has them reaching out to each other. Caregivers and patients both are missing special time with friends and family, know that about each other, and often try to make up for each other’s loss. I cannot count the number of times I was working on Christmas or New Year’s Eve and some sick patient worried more that I was not home with my family than about their own condition. In that moment we shared a special bond born of sweet sadness; we each not home for the holidays, but we enjoyed each other’s love of such time, of children, of families, and of holidays.
We then traded holiday stories and best wishes, and gave each others the gift of the caring of strangers. From such moments I got warm memories unavailable at a million New Year’s Eve parties, and small gifts of human kindness never found under the tree.
Shared appreciation is another ingredient of the recipe, an appreciation by both patients and caregivers of what we have and have lost, and of what’s really important in life. Both of us can find a greater appreciation of family by missing special time with them. Whatever their own problems, caregivers can appreciate they are not burdened with illness so great they have to be in the hospital over the holidays. Patients can appreciate that, whatever they have lost due to illness, what’s left to them can be more precious than ever.
I never would have believed that time spent in a hospital during the holidays could be a wonderful experience. Had someone told me that before I discovered it for myself I would have thought them ill and in need of some quality hospital time with intensive therapy. But five minutes into my first holiday call night I found the special holiday feeling everywhere I went. And I found it every time I worked a holiday thereafter, and in every place I worked such holidays.
Some of the same spirit can be found among others who work holidays so the rest of us can safely enjoy those special times. Police officers, firefighters and emergency medical service providers often have that spirit born of the sacrifice of serving so others can safely celebrate. I suspect members of the armed forces do too, and I think of them all when I have my holidays free for family time and fun, appreciative that their vigilance and service allow me to be comfortable and carefree.
If Santa were to look down from his sleigh Christmas Eve he would see warm glows from hospitals in particular, however. He would see hospital caregivers who work the holidays often bringing extra holiday spirit to work and to the bedside, sharing it with colleagues in the form of food and decorations, and with patients in the form of extra affection and cheer. Patients often, to the extent they can, give it right back.
Santa would be proud of them all.
Erik Steele is the former chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems. He now works at Summa Health System in Akron, Ohio.