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A Day in the Life of a Nurse Working Christmas

This is a letter written by Any Nurse, RN, who is working Christmas at a hospital in EveryTown.

I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong. I knew when I became a nurse that working Christmas comes with the territory, and on top of that I’m fairly new (haven’t “paid my dues” yet) but..I’ll be honest, it’s still hard.

nurse working Christmas, nurse, nursing, holidays

Our tree on 2 Central

I’ve never spent a Christmas away from family before. It feels really, really strange. Even wrong. I’m just not used to it.

My alarm BRINGSSS!!! at 0500 and it takes a second for the dread to sink in. Oh, no. Today’s Christmas. And I’m scheduled to work. Maybe I could call in sick? Would that be extra sick points? It’s not my fault that I suddenly developed nausea and vomiting…that happens, right? Yes, that’s it!…food poisoning…and the kids will be SO happy and surprised when they wake up and see me still here…and …No.

With a sigh, I swing my legs out of bed, feeling in the dark with my feet for my slippers. I pad to the bathroom and quickly shower. Blow dry my hair and pull on my scrubs.

“I feel bitter”]

Why me? I don’t want to go in today! Pity party in full swing, I tiptoe down the hall and out past our beautifully decorated tree with red and gold foil wrapped gifts of all sizes piled underneath. I pinch and crush a couple of pine needles in my fingers and inhale the spicy, woody fragrance. I reluctantly leave my sleepy warm house, pulling the front door gently shut behind me, for a heavy silence outside and my cold car. Guiltily sneaking away from my sleeping family.

Nurse Beth's Christmas List

Nurse Beth’s Christmas List

The commute to work goes so fast- too fast! No other cars on the road! I park, walk in to the hospital…and step onto my unit for a jarring reality, a non-Christmas world. IV alarms are beeping, call lights ringing, pharmacy techs are busily delivering medications…all as if it’s not Christmas at all.

I take report. There are no light assignments today. All patients that could possibly be discharged have been, and the patients left behind are all really sick. So many isolation rooms!

Some patients are so sick they don’t even know it’s Christmas. Some may not even make it through the shift. Wait…at least I’m not a patient, right? There’s that.

Like almost every other work day, I soon am so busy that I forget everything else. GI bleeds and c diff and acute MIs don’t care what day it is. The outside world fades far away until my world is reduced to a rolling blue vein on an arm in front of me, with me holding a #20 gauge catheter, praying I get it with one stick. My patient badly needs a blood transfusion. I even forget it’s Christmas for whole moments at a time.

nurse, nursing, nurse working Christmas

Code Blue! Cath Lab

Suddenly I hear “Code Blue Cath Lab, Code Blue Cath Lab” paged loudly overhead. I’m not on the code team, but my heart jumps, then sinks a little, imagining someone’s loved one coding on Christmas, wondering if they’re going to make it.

In my head, I instantly concoct a whole story, complete with a distraught wife and grown children flying in from all over to say their last good byes to Dad who arrested on the table. Later I will hear they coded him for fifty minutes before calling it. That means he was on the young side. How that family will ever celebrate Christmas again, I don’t know.

Lunchtime. Fingersticks, double-check insulins. Dietary serves bland turkey and ice-cream scoop portions of dressing on industrial plastic patient trays. I pretend it’s fabulous and Oooh! and Aah! for my patients as I lift the tray covers and open napkin packets.

By contrast, the break room table is laden with colorful salads, rich desserts, tasty pancit, and homemade tamales. Mouth-watering deliciousness. I duck in to grab a bite, but Dr. Good Timing returns my call, and I have to duck out to ask the family if they are going to agree to a PEG tube placement. One thing leads to another, and I don’t get back to the break room for over an hour. By now my bladder is about to burst.

Off and on during the day, I think about my family. I miss them and feel guilty. It’s 1400…what are the kids doing right now? Squabbling? Playing with their new toys? I’m changing a wound vac.

A pediatric nurse from down the hall pulls Valerie, a 2-year-old burn patient, around the unit in a red wagon. Valerie was the victim of a hot oil burn, a kitchen cooking accident. Valerie was alone at home with her mother’s boyfriend, who was babysitting. The hot oil severely burned the right side of her face, her right arm and the top of her right hand. Everybody  knows her and stops to greet her. Valerie recently learned to blow kisses, and she’s still a bit uncoordinated with her left hand, but she blows kisses to everyone at every opportunity.

She’s such a spunky, spirited little girl! She’s holding a plain red felt Christmas stocking stuffed with small goodies and lifts it up high for me to see, her blue eyes bright and shining.

I hope she doesn’t have disfiguring facial scars. But I think she will. She doesn’t care now, but I see ahead to her 13-year-old self and my heart aches so badly I can’t think about it for long. It’s so unfair. I have a 2-year-old girl, and can’t imagine.

My 42-year-old patient, Angela, found out last night (Christmas Eve) that she has metastatic spread from her primary pancreatic cancer. We nurses had all read the reports and knew before her doctor told her, exchanging glances with each other every time he walked on the floor. She looks so good, so…alive! But she doesn’t have much time left. Pancreatic cancer is fast.

Angela is one of those beautiful women who make people do a double take when they first see her. I freeze frame a picture of her in my mind as she looks today, shoulder length silky blond hair, fine features, large blue eyes. Why is she not a model? I know in a short time she will look very different. Cancer will ravage her looks.

It seems all of Angela’s family and friends must be here, there are so many people crammed in the room, most of them standing. I go to other patient’s rooms to steal extra chairs and drag them in. Covertly, I watch her husband, Brad, and silently grieve for him. With him. He’s holding it together so far. Probably for the sake of their twin 11-year-old girls, who are constantly texting on their phones.

I look around at the different women in the room and wonder which one of them will act as mother for them. The twin girls will need bras soon.Amy

Steve, my 29-year-old, unemployed, frequent flyer drug addicted patient with endocarditis- NO ONE comes to see him. Maybe they’re coming later? I don’t ask. He jokes and acts tough. But if you look at him closely, you can see the hurt in his eyes. His jokes don’t hide the pain. Who hurt him so badly? When? When he was a small child? Like Valerie?

I bring him a big wedge of three layer chocolate cake from the potluck. And a styrofoam cup of coffee the way I know he likes it, three creamers with three sugars. From a fresh pot I just made. Mmmmm, that coffee aroma is the best. A special Christmas blend of allspice and baked apple. I keep thinking I’m going to bring Steve a real coffee cup from home, but I keep forgetting.

I help Anita, my nursing assistant, bathe our 76-year-old female patient admitted yesterday with a stroke. Anita combs her thinning permed white hair, and I apply red lipstick from her cosmetics bag to her lips. Her smile is uneven, but she looks beautiful and I tell her so. I hold up a mirror. She utters something guttural and unintelligible, her speech garbled from the stroke. But I distinctly think I hear her say “Thank you, dear.”

nurse, nursing, nurse working Christmas

Believe it or not, I feel blessed

Her daughter smiles at me gratefully, and her eyes mist up. I look away so mine won’t mist up as well. That’s almost all the Christmas I need in that moment.

On the way back to the nurses’ station, I answer a call light for a patient who’s cold and asks for a blanket. I go to the supply room- Yay! The blanket warmer is stocked and I pull a folded, soft one out, hugging it to my chest as I walk back. I tuck her in securely with the warm blanket. It’s a silly little vanity, but I take pride in my warm blanket-covering technique. The blanket needs to go next to the skin but you have to do it without uncovering or exposing the patient.

She smiles as the warmth seeps in. I like being the Giver of Warm. Very basic, but one of my favorite things to do.

Back at the station is a Starbucks steaming hot, large peppermint mocha latte with my name on it! Really? Wow! From Brad, the husband of the lady with cancer! I’m humbled. He’s losing his wife and he brought me coffee?

[“I feel blessed”]

I’m grateful for this job where I get to care for others with skilled hands, knowing I helped. I’m grateful for my coworkers, not one of whom grumbled all day.

Everyone left their families today, not just me. Anita, my nursing assistant, has 4 kids. Two of whom are teenagers and are causing her no end of grief. She’s a single Mom. She’s my hero. Randy, the Respiratory Therapist, Marlene, the housekeeper, the doctors on call. My work family.

Oh my gosh, it’s 1830! Where did the day go? I rush to finish up, give report and clock out. Home to my waiting family. You know what? Working Christmas turned out OK, after all. I can’t want to share my day with my husband and cuddle my beautiful, healthy children.

But still, maybe next year, could I get Christmas off?

Nurse Beth’s Christmas List

How to Deal with Toxic People   when you dread family get-togethers

Encourage Me

Until next time friend,

Nurse Beth

Come visit me at Ask Nurse Beth career column at allnurses.com for all kinds of  entertaining and informative career questions and answers, and to submit your own question 🙂

About Beth Hawkes (126 Articles)
Nice to meet you! I'm a Nursing Professional Development Specialist in acute care, a writer, speaker and career columnist.
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  • Beautifully written, Beth. I, too, work in healthcare (Inpatient Psychiatry) and work the holiday rotations. Even though it is hard not being with the family, there are so many small rewards that come with spending holidays with patients and our “work families” that make it worth it. Luckily for me, my family is very understanding and plan around my schedule. It usually means more festivities for them, so it’s a win-win. 🙂 Thanks for sharing this! I plan to pass it along to my work crew.

    • Beth Hawkes

      thanks, Melissa, how funny bc I was just reading your blog post (includes I made poor dietary choices today, lol) and saw that you’re a Behavioral Health Specialist. I was intrigued.
      thanks for the kind words-Beth

  • Hi Beth, reading this gives me new appreciation of nurses and everyone that works in the hospital. My parents had their share of long hospital stays so while I appreciate all the nurses that I’ve met, reading this post just makes me wish I could hug you and say thank you for all that you have done. Bless you!

    • Beth Hawkes

      Hi Maureen ,
      That is so kind! Thank you- Beth

  • Hi Beth,
    my husband is an RN, too. It is hard to see him go on holidays. At the same time, we are grateful he is on the care-giver end of the treatment and not the care-receiver! Thank you for your service in healthcare!
    Blessings – Trish

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you, Trish! He’s lucky to have a supportive family-Beth

  • Honestly I don’t know how you do such a hard emotional job everyday, and on Christmas. I commend you for the work you put in to make other people and their families feel comfortable and safe. Thank you for sharing your Christmas day with us, I hope the rest of it was wonderful 🙂 #ibabloggers

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you so much, Megan!

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  • Thank you for sharing your post with us. And more importantly, thank you for all that you do – nurture and compassion are so very needed. 🙂

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you kindly coming from a fellow blogger 🙂

  • My mom works in NICU at a children’s hospital and definitely had to work a lot of Christmases when we were little. She’d just tell us that whatever day she had off was Christmas Day and we actually never noticed the difference! (I only found this out about 2 years ago! 😛 )

    Belated merry Christmas to you (and a very happy new year up ahead), and thank you so much for all that you do! I love heartwarming patient stories. <3!

    • Beth Hawkes

      What a great Mom you have! Thanks, Farrah

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  • Anonymous

    I have been a nurse for over 40 years and though I know it is the worse day of the year to have to work I have done more than my share. I have always given my patients my best and hats off to you for your compassion and caring

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you 🙂

  • Cindy

    My friends daughter is a nurse. She works on Christmas Day too. Now I know how her day will go. Thank you for caring.

    • Beth Hawkes

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Cindy!

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you, Cindy

  • Anonymous

    I have a worked a few Christmas’ myself as a RN. YOu hit it right on the head. Merry Christmas to every nurse working this year!

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you! Merry christmas to you 🙂

    • Beth Hawkes

      Yes, and everyone who works Christmas!

  • Often times we forget the real meaning of Christmas and think it’s about food, family, presents, decorations, snow, and what we want. However, if we could ask Jesus what he would like for a birthday present… There are probably few places so full of opportunity to give what Jesus was all about than in a hospital on Christmas. I think that’s why you feel blessed doing what you’re doing.
    I enjoyed your story.

    • Beth Hawkes

      Thank you, Travis. I feel the same as you and I’ve thought the same.

      Merry Christmas,

      Beth

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