AltHealth: Merry Medical

Christmas Day may be a time for many of us to relax and enjoy festivities and food with family and friends, but for medical workers, it’s often just business as usual. Illness doesn’t take a holiday; in fact, for those in the medical profession, the holidays are often the busiest time of the year.

Emergency rooms become chaotic. People are drinking more and eating less healthy, and cases of depression often spike. Colds and flus abound and there’s an uptick of patients who are brought in for accidents involving Christmas lights. Primary care offices tend to be closed for Christmas, so ERs and Urgent Care Centers become the oasis for those who need immediate attention. Unfortunately, Urgent Care centers are not equipped to handle serious emergencies and people often waste valuable time running to a center when the services of a fully equipped ER are essential. If you cut your finger carving the turkey, Urgent Care is fine, but if you’ve just had a pulmonary embolism, get your ass to the ER, pronto.

Mental health workers and social workers have their hands full with patients who fight for their own inner stability while the carols blare and the lights twinkle. Holidays are “marker” events which can trigger unfortunate and painful memories in those struggling with mental issues. At the same time, social services crews are often stripped down to a skeleton staff as the holidays wear on. Workers who are left shoulder a mountain of emergency referrals that come pouring in.

The overtime hours are often as hard, if not harder, on the families of health workers than on the workers themselves. After all – if your life is dedicated to healing, there is a sense of purpose and belonging in giving care to those in need. But when your mom runs out on Christmas dinner or dad leaves the tree half trimmed because someone’s baby arrived at 1am on December 25, there’s nothing left to look at but the unfinished tree and that empty place at the table. The disappointment is especially hard on children.

But not every medical family is negatively impacted by the holidays. My friend, Dr. H, smiled when I asked him what he did on Christmas. “If you’re Jewish, you happily spend Christmas on call and/or working in the hospital! Jewish docs and other healthcare workers feel good about giving our non-Jewish colleagues time to celebrate their holiday with their family without having to worry about watching the store. It’s like a party meeting the others at the hospital.  There are three Jewish docs in our group of about 18, and we almost fight to be on during Christmas. What else is there to do?”

Of course, it’s not just healthcare workers, but also hospitality and catering staff, retail workers and transportation personnel who give up their break. The police force is vigilant as well, and let’s not forget –  Dunkin’ Donuts never closes. The problem is, when you add all that extra activity and overtime into the mix, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the death rate shows a notable increase, especially from Christmas through the new year. What is surprising, though, is that researchers aren’t really sure why.

Medical science has known for years that more people die on New Year’s Eve and Day than at any other time of the year, but so far, they can’t pinpoint a cause. Yes, there are the increased accidents from overindulgence and sheer stupidity, but the fact is that death from natural causes are a large factor in what causes the statistics to spike. And while it might seem logical to draw a correlation between the colder weather and high mortality rates, the numbers are about the same in warmer climates as they are in frigid ones. Seasonal cold weather illnesses, such as influenza, can also be disregarded as a cause; January 1 sees a rise in deaths that far surpasses those in other equally cold and virus-riddled months.

Scientists are forced to consider a rather unscientific explanation – that people may try to postpone death to reach symbolic events, such as family Christmas festivities or New Year celebrations. However, there’s no drop in deaths ahead of the ball drop in Times Square, which suggests that those efforts towards postponement aren’t particularly successful.

So – while we are enjoying Christmas in the warmth and comfort our own homes (or on Uncle Bob’s couch), let’s all take a moment to thank the healthcare workers who are sacrificing their own holiday in order to ensure the safety of ours.

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