Whether it’s delivering the first baby of the New Year or attending to an accident victim, for some medical professionals Christmas and New Year’s Day are just another day in the office. Across the country this year, thousands of health care professionals will either be staffing local health care facilities or be on-call for emergencies during the December holiday season.
Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses don’t take a day off. For example, one report indicates heart-related deaths increase by five percent during the holiday season with fatal heart attacks peaking on Christmas, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
For health care professionals, finding balance between professional obligations and spending time with family at this time of the year can be the biggest stressor for members of health care teams.
According to Scott Shapiro MD, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and a practicing cardiologist with Abington Medical Specialists in Montgomery County, physicians find this out quickly when starting their careers.
“When it comes to holiday coverage and scheduling all shifts must be covered,” says Dr. Shapiro. “Anyone who wants to become a physician should anticipate working over the holidays.”
Dr. Shapiro says those interested in becoming a physician will find out quickly as most experience their first Christmas and New Year’s holiday in a health care setting while completing residency.
“When you’re first starting off after medical school, it may feel unfair that you have to work a holiday, but then you realize what the patient is going through and you quickly realize the necessity of being there,” says Dr. Shapiro.
Hans Zuckerman, DO, experienced his first holiday in a hospital setting just last year. After completing medical school at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, Dr. Zuckerman jumped into his career and continued his training as a medical resident at Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon.
“For the most part, working Christmas is just another day in the hospital,” says Dr. Zuckerman, who is also a member of the Pennsylvania Medical Society Board of Trustees. “We’re all quite aware it’s a holiday, and we do have some lighter moments on those days, but you learn quickly that you’re there for a reason.”
Todd Fijewski, MD, FACEP, president of the Pennsylvania College of Emergency Physicians and a practicing physician in Pittsburgh, has spent more than a few holidays caring for patients. And he’s seen it all from heart attacks to food poisoning to house fire victims.
For Dr. Fijewski the expectation of working on any holiday throughout the year comes with the job. And, from the time an injured individual enters an emergency department until they either head home or are admitted to the hospital, they could come in contact with as many as six to 10 health care professionals.
“Patients who come into the emergency department for many different reasons on holidays,” he says. “Some are there for true emergencies, while others are there because their local office or clinic is closed.”
“This can present frustration for patients, and many of them feel horrible that they need to go to an emergency department for care,” Dr. Fijewski says. “Yes, there are quite a few family activities that we miss, but it’s worse to be the patient sick in a hospital on Christmas or New Year’s instead of being home and healthy with family.”
Michael Bohrn, MD, past president of the Pennsylvania College of Emergency Physicians who currently practices in York, adds, “The holidays are a stressful time for many reasons, and for people from all walks of life. The emergency department is an epicenter for all things during the holidays.”
Of course, some holiday health care activities are more joyful than others, such as delivering the first baby. And, with the help of the media, this can be a big event.
“Although some hospitals have stopped promoting the first baby of the New Year, many continue to do so with the family’s permission,” says Kurt T. Barnhart, MD, MSCE, president of the Pennsylvania American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and a practicing physician in Philadelphia. “The joy that I’ve observed over the years for families of the New Year baby is quite often similar to those on any other day, but there does seem to be an exclusive club for the first born every year. No birth is as widely anticipated or reported as the first baby of the New Year.”
The December holiday season also has one of the most unpopular days for babies to be born … Christmas.
According to a 2012 article on Huffington Post, Christmas Day births are “almost uniquely uncommon.” Furthermore, the story reports that “December 25 is the least common birthday out of all the days of the year save the one that doesn’t even occur annually — February 29.”
Even so, says Dr. Barnhart, health care teams will be ready just in case. “You can’t take any day lightly,” he says, adding that one delivery includes help from many health care team members from the time the mom-to-be enters the hospital until she and baby head home.
Dr. Shapiro sums up holiday health care with a simple observation. “No one wants to be in the hospital for a holiday, but if there’s a patient in need, there’s a physician with a team of professionals ready to help.”