I have long felt that working in the hospital on Christmas day is as close to a spiritual experience as I can get. This is not because I have any specific religious training. I do not. It is because so many others have been steeped in Christian theology that the hospital is suffused with an extra sanctity and we, the agnostics, feel the quiet radiance.
The usual hospital stressors are reduced. The pace is slow. Patients have struggled home and the census is down. Pressure to make beds available for ER admissions is gone. The OR is quiet except for the occasional emergency.
The Muzak is predictable and focused. Even though holiday music has been played for weeks, on this day it is appropriate and therefore less irritating. Periodically, snippets of “The Messiah” ring through the corridors. The beauty of the classical music inspired by Christian theology is undeniable.
There is less medical craziness on Christmas. Typically, many symptoms and medical problems are caused by stress and it behooves the responsible physician to sort through the issues, hoping to repair the physical and to soothe the emotional. Unique among holidays, Christmas causes stress at home but on this day only the stress is not manifest as medical issues.
Consequently, emergencies have a different feel on Christmas. There is more time to care for the patient and less emotional distraction. Patients of all faiths are calmer and more thankful for the care they receive,
Being a doctor is about caring and about being appreciated. Christmas highlights this.
I have just spent Christmas in Milwaukee. It will prove to be my last Christmas with my father. I spent most of the time cooking (trying to recreate flavors from Christmas past including my mother’s Pecan Pie) or at his bedside. Sitting or chatting in his darkened room was reminiscent of pleasant, peaceful Christmas moments from past hospital experiences.
My father had no religious training as a child. As an adult he embraced Lord Melbourne’s expostulation, “Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life.” But, he is a man of good will and endless grace. His life of quiet accomplishment is coming to a close.
Being a son (or daughter) is about caring and being appreciated. Christmas can highlight this.
Photo: snapshot of Sam leaving in the dark for his first day of work as a medical resident at Grady Hospital. It was 1977, we had just moved to Atlanta, and Eliza was six weeks old.