For Two Young Doctors, Working On Christmas Was A Privilege
December is supposed to be the time of year filled with family gatherings and holiday good cheer. For medical residents, quite the opposite is true.
There are no school breaks during residency. Being a medical resident is a real job, and a stressful one at that. Residents work long shifts, even with caps that max out at 16 hours for the newbies and up to 28 hours for those beyond the first year.
For many of our trainees — especially those fresh out of medical— this will be the first holiday season without time off.
I remember lamenting my first December having to work straight through. A wise mentor helped me reframe my self-pity.
"It’s a privilege to work on Christmas," he told me. "Our patients count on us. You may not want to be in the hospital, but think of what they’re going through." He smiled, as if he were welcoming me to a special club, one that I wasn’t wholeheartedly ready to join. "Your mere presence helps reduce each patient’s sense of loss."
I was rotating in intensive care, where the outlook for patients can be quite grim on any day, regardless of the season.
A 30-something patient I’ll call Will was brought in after paramedics found him unconscious on the street.
He was in a coma. We didn’t know the cause, but set to work trying to give him every opportunity to arise from the slumber of his critical illness.
I was on the rotation with two other interns. We took turns spending nights in the hospital — each of us taking every third night on call. The first night, my buddy Paul spent the night at Will’s bedside trying to figure out a way to replenish his body with fluid, given the massive output that was draining into his urine bag.
Will had suffered a brain injury. One effect was diabetes insipidus, a condition that meant his kidneys couldn’t hold onto his body’s water. The result can be rapid dehydration and death.
Illustration by Katherine Streeter for NPR