December 12, 2011

Memories of Christmases Past in Hospital


Earlier this year, 2011, I came across a wonderful piece written by George Watts, a retired consultant surgeon in Birmingham. He had written the piece way back in 2006, and published it first on BMJ. Although "old", the freshness of the message resonated strongly into me and gave me such pleasure that I decided to share it here with you. I do hope you enjoy it like I did.

Christmas in hospital today is a rather sad affair. Most wards are closed, and those that stay open contain very sick patients. These poor unfortunates are unable to enjoy any festivities at all. A greatly reduced team tends to their needs. Their visiting relatives are all serious and sombre. But it was not always so.

Once all junior doctors and nurses lived in the hospital. This was their home. They were as isolated as nuns in a convent and monks in a monastery. Yet an almost family relationship existed among them. At no time was this more obvious than at Christmas.

Christmas celebrations began before the actual day. On the wards there was frantic activity preparing the decorations (which remained until 12th night). Ward sisters kept decorations from year to year, but each year strove to outdo its predecessors. Patients and nurses helped make new streamers.

Local shops took down their window displays on Christmas Eve to prepare the windows for the Boxing Day sales. They gave the decorations to hospitals. A Christmas tree for every ward was brought up by the porters, and the hospital electrician decorated each with lights. Presents for each patient were laid underneath.

Several of the last outpatients before Christmas would be well known to doctors and nurses. They would wait at the back of the queue until their turn came. They usually had mild chronic diseases, but their greatest disability was loneliness. We would go through a charade ending with, “I wonder whether it might be wise for you to come into hospital for a few days?” The patient's eyes would light up, they would nod vigorously, and admission would be arranged on Christmas Eve.

I particularly remember one who played the organ for the Christmas Day service. Every year she was admitted with severe difficulty in swallowing; she protested that she could not swallow a thing. Whether it was her organ playing or the hymns and prayers offered that morning in chapel, no miracle was more dramatic than the way her dysphagia recovered the moment I carved the turkey. And it remained cured for the next year.

The real start of Christmas, however, was when the nurses, wearing their capes and carrying lanterns, toured the wards to sing carols. This ended in the hospital chapel, with a service attended by nurses and patients. The next morning the consultants came, often with their children. Each patient was usually given a further small gift. At the end of this round the consultant, the junior doctors, and the sister would retire to the sister's office for a glass of sherry, and to leave a present for the sister and the nurses.

Then the consultant would ceremonially carve the ward turkey. The junior doctors and nurses took the meals to the patients. And then they would take their own meal of what was left. The ward then braced itself for visitors in their best clothes, bearing gifts and accompanied by children with new toys. The consultants meanwhile would go to another ward to carve another turkey or several, before returning home for their own delayed family meal.

Perhaps the most touching part of the hospital Christmas were the events in the casualty department. Here children would appear in new boots that they had received from the charity of the local newspaper, which had an annual “boot fund.” This was a reflection of the generosity of Charles Hyde, its owner, for our city. These boots were the only ones these children would receive until next Christmas. Each child was tended to gently by a doctor and a nurse: a little rubbing of a bruise and perhaps a bandage to get sympathy at home. And then to the tree. To their surprise there was always a parcel with their name on it—the only present that most of them would receive.

The children's relatives were given mince pies. No matter how many children or parents came there was always a present, and the supply of pies never faltered. I never knew how Sister Cunningham, who ran our casualty ward, did it: it was as though one was watching a miracle. While the children unwrapped and the parents munched, the nurses and doctors looked on. The young doctors received thirty shillings a week as their salary and the nurses less, but for them this was the spirit of Christmas—to give with no expectation of return. The recipients' joy is something that all who saw it will remember for ever. Perhaps with our modern wealth we have forgotten that spirit.

1). George Watts. Christmases past in hospital. BMJ 2006; 333:1340. (Published 21 December 2006)

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