Caring for Patients: The Holiday Season


I love the holiday season.  Being a physician has changed some aspects of holidays and the way I celebrate them.  All holidays were defined as being “on-call” or “off-call” and it was that way always.  My first year in residency, I was on-call for Christmas.  I had a wonderful potluck dinner with the hospital staff who were working in the ICU.  All through my training, I was mostly on-call and not able to make it home to Birmingham. When my son was born, it did not change.  We were adopted by my friend Elaine (my senior resident) and we spent many holidays with her family in Montclair.  Her father was my hero.  He was the first African American physician to be allowed to join the Medical Staff at Mountainside Hospital.

When we moved to the Eastern Shore, for the first few years, I was on-call.  We were showered with gifts from patients and their families. At first, I was overwhelmed by the kindness.  I was always just being a physician and caring for each patient in the manner I was trained.  That is what Meharry Medical college taught me.  I had to learn to be a good receiver.  I was always taught it is better to give. So I always found it easier to give.

I usually performed my Christmas hospital rounds early in the morning while our kids were sleeping.  My husband made waffles and sausage and they opened gifts after breakfast.  I would hold my breath hoping not to get a call from the hospital, ER or a patient until after I saw their faces light up. The holiday season was a mixture of happiness and sadness.  I had several patients who each died around the holiday season.  One of my patients with AIDS who was suffering from a serious infection died.  I had mixed emotions. I was sad for his family but relieved that he was free from the suffering.  Another patient had a massive heart attack on Christmas day and died in the front yard of his home.  His family was devastated.  I had to be in the ER after the resuscitation.  One year, we had an influenza outbreak that almost closed the school system.  It stopped when the school let out for the holiday break.  The hospital had special treats and dinner for patients who were hospitalized. They each had small decorated trees in their rooms.  One year I was treated to the beautiful voice of a patient singing Christmas carols.  She had an infected bone in her foot (osteomyelitis) and needed IV antibiotics.  She had no family so we could not set-up home therapy for her. I loved rounding at the Nursing Home.  The decorations in the lobby and the patient areas were beautiful. The patients families would be visiting and always thanked us for the care we gave their loved ones.

One year, we received three turkeys, a ham, a large tin of assorted fresh fruit and Omaha Steaks.  That did not include the boxes of cookies.  We had to donate it to the Salvation Army and the AIDS Hospice.  Everyone benefitted from the love that my patients and colleagues showered on us.  I loved to make pies.  So I would make them and deliver them to my colleagues. One colleague was asleep so I left the pie on the top of her car.  She was thrilled.  It was one of my sweet potato pies.

Living in a small town, afforded me the opportunity to be invited to so many holiday events. Each year, I had to purchase several outfits for the party season. The selection was always from Nordstrom’s Half Yearly Sale. I would go to the sale with my shopping buddy Ann. The season began with the Hospital holiday party for the medical staff. The next was our office party.  I loved the Secret Santa gifts.  I had to find the best gifts for each person.   One year, I was awarded the “Doctor of the Year.”  There was the holiday party at the Country Club.  That invitation was courtesy of my office manager and her husband who owned a local bar. One patient was an organist and music director at the Episcopal Church.  We had the pleasure of being invited to the annual performance of “The Messiah.”  The husband of my nurse was a noted tenor and he was the highlight of the performance. My colleague Ann was a cardiologist and an accomplished musician.  She performed in the Bell Choir at her church.  I loved their annual Christmas Concert.  Afterwards, we had a wonderful dinner at her home.  She was an exceptional hostess.  We had many dinners in her home which included Easter dinner for several years.

When I left after six years, I received so many Christmas card.  I started a tradition with so many former patients. Over the years many of them died.  The return card would be from a family member.  The first year, the husband of a patient I had treated a chronic infection died and he sent me a long letter and her Funeral program.  He said, “She loved receiving me card each year. I regret having to inform you of her death.”   We continued to send each other cards until his daughter sent me a card informing me of his death. To paraphrase, “My father was heart-broken over the death of my mother. He has now joined her.”  One year, the wife of my former patient sent me his funeral program and copy of his picture.  He always brought me fresh kale from his garden.  He was known as an excellent cook and baker.  He always brought us baked goods.

Now, I  work for the state of NJ and in our ethics policy; we are unable to receive any holiday gifts except small ones from colleagues.  If a patient gave me a gift, I would have to take it their office and it would be donated to the appropriate charity.  The past two years, I have not been on call.  This year, we spent a few days in NYC.  I saw the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, looked at all the holiday decorations and pushed through the crowd to see the tree at Rockefeller Center.

Merry Christmas to all

5 thoughts on “Caring for Patients: The Holiday Season

  1. Lovely reflections. You are truly a giver. Sometimes I think some of these office policies that try so hard to be politically correct can actually become a bit tiresome. A few gifts can’t hurt anyone.
    Enjoy the holidays! See you Friday!

  2. Gee, if I were you I would run back to where you practiced before. I’m a fundraiser and we were not supposed to accept gifts either. I know why the rule exists, but it ‘s a dumb rule in some ways. I think we rob folks of a blessing when we don’t accept their gift.

    It seems odd that you would be directed to receive a gift and then turn around and donate it somewhere else.

    It speaks a great deal about the strength of your character and your care for your patients that so many stayed in touch with you.

    Merry Christmas to you,

    • Thank you. I still get requests to come back. My former office manager sends a card every year and I tear up that she says “still miss you.” My old friend and neighbor has a wreath that I made one year for a fundraiser one year. She just passed it on to her son. Those are such great memories.

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