As we near the close of a celebratory though hectic and emotional time of year, it's important to remember all the many people who don't get time off work to enjoy the season with their loved ones. For those in certain demanding, stress-inducing lines of work - particularly doctors, nurses, military personnel, police officers and firefighters - it has to be an extremely difficult period.
I was reminded of this by a short essay written in 2013 by Dr. John Henning Schumann, the host of the radio show Tulsa's Medical Matters. The reprint is currently posted on NPR. In his essay, Dr. Schumann reflects on a young doctor's life during residency training with hospital shifts lasting from 16 to 28 hours with no holiday breaks; of how the holidays fall during a difficult midpoint in the year, characterized by high stress and sagging morale for new doctors in that final stretch toward certification. And of the added stress of knowing you've been assigned to your first shift working Christmas day, a day known for its influx in patient deaths from natural causes; what is known as the "Christmas effect."
The Christmas holiday effect on mortality, though not fully clinically understood, has been statistically established in the United States for a number of years. People's ability to somehow modify their date of death based on dates of significance has been both confirmed and refuted in various studies.
In working his Christmas shift, Dr. Schumann received some important counseling by a wise senior doctor. "It's a privilege to work on Christmas," the doctor told him. "Our patients count on us. You may not want to be in the hospital, but think of what they're going through. Your mere presence helps reduce each patient's sense of loss." Dr. Schumann goes on to speak of how he and another young resident on duty began to see the patients they were treating in a different light. They came to see themselves in one critical patient they were treating, of how his mother could have easily been their own. Their Christmas shift experience helped them understand what it truly meant to be a doctor.
After reading this, I coincidentally came across an article in the Guardian by a young woman named Jenny Hughes, who is currently a teaching fellow in anatomy at the London Medical School. She also writes about her Christmas experience as a new doctor; of the lack of morale, of exhaustion and questioning her career choice prior to this experience. She speaks of heading off to her Christmas shift feeling depressed and sorry for herself.
When she arrived her perception changed. When she walked through the front door a worker in a Santa hat wished her a merry Christmas. Everyone, including patients in dressing gowns gave her a smile or a holiday greeting. Patients thanked her for being there. A relative of a patient gave her a Christmas card.
During her shift, she was faced with one of the worst and most profound moments of her career. An extremely ill young female patient died unexpectedly. Her elderly mother was called in for the bad news to be delivered. When she arrived, senior staff could not be found. It was up to Hughes to speak with the patient's mother. She had broken such news before, but never on Christmas day. She took the mother into a deserted side room and as calmly as she could, told her. To her surprise, the old woman stood up, gave her a hug, and thanked her for being brave. She thought to herself: here is a woman receiving some of the worst news a person can hear, and she is concerned about me. The experience has since caused Hughes to wonder why any professional colleague would find the thought of working at this time of the year negatively when, in reality, it can be the most uplifting time to practice medicine.
In a recent holiday column from The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness, he takes on perhaps the all-time favorite "life lesson" Christmas movie, Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life."
If there is one thing that the stories by the doctors and this film masterpiece share in common, it's the message of our interconnectedness; of how often we fail to appreciate it as something wonderful.
The character George Bailey, so brilliantly played by Jimmy Stewart, starts as a profile of quiet desperation. Bailey is oblivious to the notion that everything a person does affects - either positively or negatively - others around him.
But, Allan contends, that's not the real wisdom of the film.
We are all George Bailey, he says. We have dreams unrealized. We are stressed by daily life, all too often focused on the wrong things. But we're also capable of re-creating Bailey's profound realization; perhaps the thing that keeps us coming back to this classic film.
The real lesson of "It's a Wonderful Life," according to Allan, is that what we think we want out of life and how we spend our days in it, may not be nearly as important as what is accumulating within us, hidden in plain sight - the sublime meaning found in ordinary moments. Love for friends and family, the decency we exchange with those around us, the value of not doing "great things" but small things in a great way.
What this wonderful film reminds us to do is to take our heart out and read it every so often, says Allan.
At least every Christmas.