Yesterday was a good day. Poopdeck and JoLai flew in from LAX last night and came to our home as always. Everyone was in good spirits as we rode from the airport. Harry was at home burning in the kitchen and the kids were building some kind of fort to show their grandfather immediately upon his arrival. Christmas music was on every radio station--even the rap stations--and every single building seemed to have lights twinkling just so. I felt glad to be riding in a car with my loved ones headed home to more loved ones during the most wonderful time of the year.
Harry asked me to stop by the neighborhood CVS to get something to drink with dinner. JoLai and I jumped out of the car and scurried inside to complete this "honey-do" before pulling into the home front. Dad chilled in the car rocking out to some Nat King Cole which was perfectly fine with him. One container of sweetened iced tea later and countless "remember that time when" stories, too, we headed up to the checkout counter--the only thing standing between us and the very, very awesome Christmas eve that surely awaited us.
I grabbed my receipt and turned toward JoLai. Just as I did, I saw what appeared to be a surgeon or a resident walking by in a fleece jacket embroidered with "Emory Surgery" on the front. "Uggh. He must have had to take call," I told JoLai. "I remember those days. Call at Christmas.That sucked." She nodded in acknowledgement because she remembered those years that I was there and they were all here thanks to my schedule as a resident physician.
Just then, the surgeon got a bit closer to me. I realized that I knew him; he'd been a student at Emory before going on to his graduate training.
"Hi, Dr. Manning," he said with a smile. Although he appeared a bit tired, the smile was genuine. I'd been around hospital people enough to know what a person who'd worked all day on a tough shift looked like. This was exactly the case.
I was glad when his name came to me right away. "Hey there, Steven. Merry Christmas to you."
"Thanks," he said. Again, authentically chipper. Which, to me, was surprising given the obvious reality of him having to work over the holidays. He was alone. And in his hand was a 20 oz. Diet Coke. This was a pretty big contrast to my gallon of Arizona iced tea for many and the freckle-faced kindred on my arm.
"On call for Christmas, huh?"
"Yeah. Just leaving the VA, actually."
"Oooph. I remember those days. But residency will be behind you before you know it." I looked up toward his eyes and hoped to be at least quasi-encouraging. "Pay now, enjoy later, right?"
Instead of responding with a predictable head nod, Steven's expression softened for a moment. Then he said this:
"It's okay. At least I'm not the person who has to have surgery on Christmas eve. You know? It could be worse."
And I swear to you, this is what this young, second year, post-Christmas eve shift surgical resident said to me before taking a big swig of his Diet Coke. His words made me stop in my tracks and just stare at him. I let his words filter through my brain and trickle into my heart.
"Wow." That's all I could think to say initially. Mostly, I just looked at him incredulously. I mean, this was a second year surgical resident and it was DECEMBER. Look up "burn out" in the dictionary and his picture should be right here along with every other PGY2 resident training in the winter time.
But this wasn't the case. It just wasn't.
"Yeah. One of my attendings told me that once and it always stuck with me. It might not be fun to be on call on Christmas eve or Christmas, but it's not as bad as being the person who needs surgery on Christmas eve or Christmas."
I was still standing in the same place with my eyes trained on his. I pressed my lips together and took a big drag of air through my nostrils. "Man. That gives me some real perspective. Every single time that I took call or worked on Christmas as a resident that never occurred to me. You've really given me something to chew on. Thanks."
He offered back a lopsided shrug and smile in response. I could tell he wasn't trying to be heavy. This was just the perspective he'd chosen to embrace while caring for human beings during the most wonderful time of the year.
"Merry Christmas again. And thanks for the good word."
Steven waved good bye and turned to head down the toothpaste and toiletries aisle. Just before disappearing he paused and said, "Hey--will this get me on the blog?"
I laughed out loud. "Will it?"
"Yes! I've been waiting to make the blog forever." We all collectively laughed, including my sister.
"Consider it done," I replied with a chuckle. "But, you know. . . every blogworthy moment has to have photographic evidence."
And with that, my sister pulled out her phone and immortalized the moment. She sure did.
After that, JoLai and I joined Poopdeck who had now moved on to Sam Cooke from the symphony hall of that locked car; the same one that swooped us around the corner to a home filled with the aroma of home cooked comfort foods and the sounds of children laughing. And I guess Steven went back to drinking his cola in between answering pages before eventually falling asleep on his couch. And during all of this, without question, somebody somewhere was getting prepped for emergency surgery. . . .
. . . .on Christmas eve.
Merry Christmas. I hope your days remain as merry and bright as possible.
This post reminded me of this one from a Thanksgiving in the hospital. It's one of my mom's favorites and is a story that grounds me the same way Steven's words did.
Honestly? I write this blog to share the human aspects of medicine + teaching + work/life balance with others and myself -- and to honor the public hospital and her patients--but never at the expense of patient privacy or dignity.
Thanks for stopping by! :)
"One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends of how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."
~ James Baldwin (1924 - 1987)
"Do it for the story." ~ Antoinette Nguyen, MD, MPH
Details, names, time frames, etc. are always changed to protect anonymity. This may or may not be an amalgamation of true,quasi-true, or completely fictional events. But the lessons? They are always real and never, ever fictional. Got that?