Working the Holidays: AARC Members Share Their Stories

image of stethescope wrapped in lights

The tree is all trimmed. The presents have been wrapped. The pantry is overflowing with all the good food that will be served.

But you won’t be there. You’ll be at work, taking care of other people who also won’t be with their families this holiday season.

It sounds a little sad, but is it really? According to the AARC members we talked with for this article, working on a big holiday can be the best way to help you remember what the holiday is all about.

Par for the course

“Working holidays is part of my life,” said Jim Valentine, CRT, respiratory care manager and infection preventionist at Pomerene Hospital in Millersburg, OH. “Even as a manager I will work a holiday to give a staff member the holiday off.”

Married to a nurse, Valentine says adjusting schedules to accommodate working over the holidays is just par for the course in his family and they discovered long ago that it’s not the day on the calendar that makes it a holiday. “It’s getting together with family and friends to spend time together,” he said.

There are special things going on at work on those days too that help create a festive atmosphere for staff and patients alike.

“We work in a large Amish community. On Christmas they will come through singing Christmas carols to staff and patients and they always bring in tasty bakery items which the staff love,” Valentine said. “I love working in a small hospital where everyone knows each other. Even when you’re working you are with family.”

Patient delivers therapy

Holidays can be less busy as well, because elective surgeries are not scheduled. But that’s not always the case.

Now with TechEd Consultants out of Mason, MI, Michael Holbert, BA, RRT, RPFT, remembers one holiday he spent working in the hospital that defied that traditional assumption big time.

“I came in the day before Thanksgiving expecting the usual one or two vents and a handful of breathing treatments,” he recalled. What he found was a white board full of patients, mostly with ventilators.

This was back in the day, when the RT workload was written out by hand, and at first, he thought one of his co-workers was just playing a prank.

“But it was real, and I had never seen the ICU so busy,” Holbert said.

He and his fellow therapists ended up working not just the day before Thanksgiving, but Thanksgiving Day and throughout the weekend to ensure all the balls would remain in the air.

“It was a stressful time, but also provided an opportunity to behold how gracious some patients can be,” he said.

One woman who was on nebulizer treatments for an exacerbation of COPD exuded a special peace he has carried with him all these years.

“I will never forget how, amidst all the pressure of that overwhelming workload, I would come out of her room feeling refreshed and at peace,” Holbert said. “It was one of those times that I’m sure many RTs have had, when a patient seems to be the one giving therapy.”

Snowed in

Michele Comes, RRT, RRT-NPS, RPFT, says her most memorable Christmas occurred the year she became an RT in 1978.

“I was working at a small hospital in the Southern Tier of New York State,” said the respiratory therapy supervisor at UPMC Susquehanna Soldiers + Sailors Hospital in Wellsboro, PA. “Christmas Eve Day was absolutely beautiful, and people were playing golf at the local country club.”

Her parents and grandmother were planning to travel down to help her spend her first Christmas away from home, but the weather intervened.

“That evening,” Comes said, “it began to snow.”

She was on call after 11 p.m., and as she was attending Midnight Mass, she was called into the hospital.

“On Christmas morning, we measured a total of 39 inches of snow and ended up staying for three days until other staff could make it in,” Comes said.

She says she’s worked many holidays since that time so that her staff can be home with their children.

“I always tried to cheer my patients with my Santa hat or reindeer antlers — with jingle bells, of course!” Comes said. “Our small hospital was like a family and we would all bring in food or treats to share on Christmas Day.”

One perk

For Theresa Kernisan, BS, RRT, RRT-NPS, director of respiratory therapy at Helen Hayes Hospital in West Haverstraw, NY, working on the holidays has always reminded her how blessed she is because she isn’t a patient or a loved one there with a patient who is suffering.

Having to go in when everyone else is busy preparing for the celebration has had at least one perk too.

“My relatives always seemed sorry that I had to work and tended to not require me to do much,” Kernisan said.

The best moments on the job have been those when family members of patients brought in food and goodies for the staff. Singing Christmas carols on the pediatric unit is always fun too, as is wearing a Santa hat to see patients.

Making memories

Special patients can make a working holiday well worth the effort too.

Marlyce Campbell, CRT, director of respiratory care at Trego County Lemke Memorial Hospital in Wakeeney, KS, once had a young cystic fibrosis patient who was in the hospital for Christmas every year until she was 12 years old.

Campbell and her colleagues would always decorate her room with a small tree and lights and make sure there was some sugar-free candy (she was also a diabetic) in her stocking. A visit from Santa was arranged each year too, and the staff served Angel Food Cake for dessert.

“We felt sorry for her, but for the first 11 years of her life she had Christmas with us and she knew no other type of Christmas,” Campbell said. “Her parents were thankful for all we did for her.”

All in

Of course, despite the warm memories RTs have about working the holidays, most people would still rather be home with their families, and at Highlands Medical Center in Scottsboro, AL, Cardiopulmonary Care Director Tina Dean-Everett, RRT, may have the answer.

“Everyone in our department works a short shift every year,” she explains. “They get to choose three top timeframes that they want to work and three they don’t want to work. It varies some, depending on our census, but this year everyone is working three hours.”

She includes herself in this schedule and tries to make it festive by filling stockings or gift bags with special treats for all. Dean-Everett says her RTs really enjoy handling the holidays in this manner and she does too. This way everyone gets to spend time with their own families, and with their RT family as well.

“We all know most of our patients do not want to be in the hospital. They are missing their families and the traditions that go with the holidays,” she said. For her staff, seeing those patients reminds them to be thankful for everything they have.

“We are grounded back to reality and what the season is really about,” Dean-Everett said. “As we go about our own festivities there is always a thought and prayer for the ones that can’t be home for the holidays.”