My best and worst of times working in a hospital at Christmas - Dr Lailah Peel

Being a doctor can be the greatest job, but it can also be the worst and Christmas is a time when the highs and lows are even more apparent, and at this stage in the pandemic even more so.

Dr Lailah Peel, chair of BMA Scotland Junior Doctor Committee, reflects on the best and worst of times working in a hospital over Christmas. PIC: Contributed.
Dr Lailah Peel, chair of BMA Scotland Junior Doctor Committee, reflects on the best and worst of times working in a hospital over Christmas. PIC: Contributed.

I moved to Scotland four years ago, shortly after finishing medical school. In my first year I worked most of the festive period. Christmas day fell on a Monday and the first of my 7-day stretch. The day started with lots of festivities – morning handover had one of the medical registrars in a Santa outfit, another dressed as Rudolph and festive snacks were everywhere.

Santa helped deliver small gifts to each patient and I was tasked with getting some of the blood tests needed. I was wearing a Santa hat and the nurses told me to see this particular patient first. This elderly lady was overjoyed with her gift of slippers, and very enthusiastically told me about Santa delivering it, and the Christmas lunch that was coming later. She’d spent the last few Christmases alone, and so was incredibly grateful to be able to share this Christmas with others despite being unwell. Visitors arrived after lunch, and we were able to discharge a handful of patients home and the whole hospital felt like a joyful festive place.

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I worked a 12-and-a-half hour shift, and then ended the week with 3 consecutive long shifts. By the time the weekend came, some of the festive spirit had faded and tiredness was taking over. Bed pressures were being felt, patients were sicker and it felt like we were all struggling through until our next day off.

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I was the junior doctor covering critical care. One gentleman came to us, quite unwell but still so full of festive cheer. He was glad he’d got to spend Christmas at home but sad he’d miss seeing in The Bells with his family. He explained I had to have a “wee dram” or else it wasn’t a proper Hogmanay. I explained I wouldn’t finish work until late and I was mostly looking forward to getting into bed and a long lie in. He made me promise to see The Bells, and to toast a G&T to him. I did. Just. Before promptly falling asleep on the sofa and taking myself to bed in the early hours. I spent most of New Year’s Day in bed before going back to work for another long shift the next day. I went to proudly tell that patient that I’d made it to the bells and done as he’d said, but he wasn’t there. He’d died. That death certificate felt more difficult to write than the countless others I’d done at that point.

After that shift, we got back into the normal rhythm in the hospital. It was a tough, and every winter since has been a little harder. This winter is going to be the hardest the NHS has ever felt. There will be limited visitors, minimal festivities, gaps in rotas and I suspect there’ll be more bad news than good. But I’m hoping there’ll still be some festive cheer, and I know my colleagues will all be looking out for each other. And whatever happens I’ll be sure to see in The Bells in with a wee dram.

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Dr Lailah Peel is chair of BMA Scotland’s Junior Doctor Committee

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