As I write this, it is Thanksgiving day and I am on call. I have already spent several hours rounding on patients, putting in orders, and writing notes. I wished each patient I saw, regardless of their ability to actually eat turkey and stuffing, a happy Thanksgiving. Holidays, as all those who have gone through training know, look very different for residents than they do for most of the general public. Illness and emergencies don’t take a holiday.
In my first few days as a resident, on night shift in the ICU, I spent July 4th not with family gatherings and the sizzle of the grill but sitting at the edge of the hospital helipad, watching fireworks across the city skyline and waiting for the next page about a critically ill patient. Over the years, I’ve mulled over the choice between either normalizing these times as any other workday to minimize the feeling of missing out, or leaning in and recognizing not only the holiday but those who are sharing the burden, patient and coworker alike.
Celebrating is important. It is important to recognize joy. A career in medicine demands so much of your life, so many changes and compromises. But we can also hang on to the things that matter, albeit in an altered form.
And so we find our own ways of celebrating, of spending time with those we care about in nontraditional ways. My parents, living their best retired lives, generously drive eight hours to visit and never complain when I miss the entire holiday meal to emergently trach someone in the hospital. They make me a plate to reheat long after they have gone to sleep and have coffee brewing when I wake up in the morning. Attendings invite their trainees to share in family dinners, temporarily adopting those far from home and urging us to eat first before the pagers go off. Our co-residents have us over on Christmas Day after a sleepless Christmas Eve to a house full of games and cheer.
Even within the hospital, those working find ways to bring in the spirit of the season. There are potlucks galore, holiday themed masks and paper crowns, and patient rooms strewn with twinkle lights and tinsel. The resident rooms are gaudy with decoration and replete with enough sugar to give everyone headaches. The patients, in my experience, are very cognizant of the work we as clinicians put in on these holidays, of the time with family and friends sacrificed to continue to care for them. They ask me when I’ll get a day off, when I’ll get to go home. Their families bring holiday treats for the hospital staff like we are carolers doing our rounds.
There is some pressure to get these patients home in time to celebrate. A child in a group home asked me today if he would be able to go home to see his family for Christmas if he had surgery, the first time he would be able to in years. We already try our best to heal patients in time for big events like weddings and birthdays, but with the holidays, the clock ticks all the louder. The days before the holidays run longer and longer for clinicians, trying to cram in all the visits and surgeries (and requests to get something done before a new year’s deductible starts) before we transition to a skeleton crew. The squeeze of the last days of the holiday countdown make the reprieve of the day itself all the more valuable, whether you are with your family or surrounded by the gentle beeping of monitors.
And so I would urge you, whether you are sitting in front of the fire with your loved ones or have a crackling fireplace video running on the resident room TV, to take the time during the holiday season to indulge in some cheer. Be grateful for your colleagues who are working so you don’t have to. Spend an extra minute with your patients to watch a snippet of a classic holiday movie. There is work enough to fill every day of the year but seldom time for celebration and community. Don’t let it pass you by. Happy holidays!
Have you had to spend the holidays working at clinic or in the hospital? Share your experiences in the comment section.
Heather is a chief otolaryngology – head and neck surgery resident at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Her clinical interests include patient communication, medical education, and facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. Heather was a 2021-2022 Doximity Op-Med Fellow, and is a 2022-2023 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.
Illustration by April Brust