Doctoring at Christmas

I find myself thinking about how being a doctor has come to impact the Christmas Holiday for me over the years. I have written about working late and driving home in the snow and dark of Christmas Eve in northern Maine; I have shuffled Osler’s written words into something that speaks to physicians of our times; I have written about the angst around the Holidays I see in my addiction recovery patients.

This year, my thoughts go to the way Christmas is a time of reconnection for many people. We reconnect with family and friends we may not see as often as we would like, and many of us reconnect with secular traditions dating back to our childhood. Many people also reconnect more deeply with their Christian traditions, the ancient celebration of Hanukkah or the newer one of Kwanzaa.

As a doctor, I think Christmas is a time when individuals are more open toward others, more willing to extend “good will toward men” (Luke 2:14). It can be an opener for future relationships to form or grow, a time to share our humanity in the context of experiencing something larger than ourselves and our everyday existence. It allows us to get a little more personal by sharing something of what we all have in common – the need for togetherness with those we love.

Many people in this country routinely say things like, “have a good weekend”. I’m not sure that is such a universal high point in life. For some, it is a time for dreaded chores, for others a time to muster enough energy for that second job to help pay the bills.

Christmas is a more universal time of feeling celebratory and unselfish, and for me it marks the passage of time as well as the consistency of it. It was my time of awe and delight when I was a child, and now it is that for my grandchildren. As Christmas week culminates in the New Year celebration, it also helps me think about what’s next – for me and everyone in my family.

During the coming weeks, I will make sure to share some of the joy and peace I feel in my own heart with my patients and I will be more than usually sensitive to signals of holiday blues or distress in them.

This is not a time to flaunt what we have – lavish presents, successful relatives, gourmet food, fancy decorations or invitations to fun parties. It is a time to share some simple human warmth in the darkness and bitter cold of the northern Maine winter in a time of divisiveness, strife and unrest.

It is a time of “peace, good will toward men”, of greater openness to others. It is a good time for reconciliation or rekindling of relationships we may have neglected since the last time we wished each other Merry Christmas.

12 Responses to “Doctoring at Christmas”

  1. 1 Susan Dal MD December 20, 2019 at 5:11 am

    Your words about Christmas are touching. I wish I could bring that kind of attitude to work at this time. Your column has given me reason to try. Usually, I’m so overbooked and exhausted that it’s difficult to muster any enthusiasm about the holidays. When my four children were young, their father and I spread the holiday into “The Twelve Days of Christmas” so that we each could be guaranteed some time to watch the children open their presents. (We were interns and residents at that time, so we were on call a lot during holidays.)

  2. 2 John Frey December 20, 2019 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for your thoughts. I look back on being on call, seeing patients, managing deliveries over the past 50 Christmas eve/day with a lot of warmth, stories and of course some resentment at intrusions into my holiday. I remember being a GP for a year in South Wales in the NHS – one of a few US trained family docs to do that – and how a sense of calmness and reflection would settle in on the solstice and holidays. It was a lovely working two weeks as well as patients would talk about their lives differently as I remember. I wish younger docs would experience the chance to welcome patients into their small, familiar practices and accept wishes and presents from the people they care for, and who care for them. I am afraid that the multistory buildings and lack of continuity has disrupted that. We could get back to relationships and care if we push back. Being embraced by a community or neighborhood is a great thing.

  3. 3 someshwar sharma December 21, 2019 at 8:15 pm

    well said

  4. 4 Summer Fitch December 25, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    A wise man….

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.



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