When Bing Crosby croons the familiar words to his oft-sung carol, no one inserts “in the hospital for Christmas” in the chorus instead of the usual lyrics about home and presents and snow. Yet it’s a certainty that many will have visions of medical scrubs rather than mistletoe during the holidays this year.
Fortunately for Bulloch County, a host of heavenly, angelic-like folks walk the halls of East Georgia Regional Medical Center (EGRMC), prepared to deliver care and presence to those in need.
Registered nurse Kim Smith has worked in the pediatric department of the hospital for 23 years and has often walked those halls on Christmas Day.
“Diseases and illnesses don’t take a day off,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate that someone has to spend that day in the hospital. As nurses, our hearts are that of a servant, to serve others. And sometimes we have to do the uncomfortable, be away from family on a holiday. The nursing profession is a selfless career of putting others first. We can choose to be bitter or positive about working on a holiday.”
Smith admits that on occasion she’s had moments of sadness about being away from immediate family.
“It’s a reality of the profession that I chose, and I try to have a positive attitude. Hopefully, that positive attitude can impact my co-workers and patients,” she added.
Smith said that the various departments at EGRMC have different schedules for the holidays and that many, like her department, switch off the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“If I work Christmas, then I’m off on Thanksgiving,” she said.
No one wants to be in the hospital over the Christmas holidays, but Smith’s floor is perhaps the one dreaded the most.
“We try to make it special for the kids that have to be there, and every child has gifts in the room when they wake up on Christmas,” she said.
Donations from various churches and organizations in the community help make that possible, and sometimes Santa can squeeze in a visit.
Smith said the nurses decorate the floor, but are limited by fire and health codes, but they still “make it festive for the kids.”
Though she misses being with her family, Smith feels blessed and rewarded by her career.
“It’s a blessing to know that I can be there for someone. God gave me the gift to be a nurse, and I have to make the best of working on a holiday. I give all the glory to God for the knowledge that I have to be a nurse, and I thank God every day for good health. I pray daily for the restored health of my patients, too,” she said.
Smith said she’s learned to embrace working on a holiday.
“Even though it’s difficult to be away from the people I love the most, it’s a blessing that I can be there to serve someone in their time of need,” she said.
Her kids, who are 20 and 16, and her husband are supportive of her career, and rise at 4 a.m. on the Christmases that she works to open presents and celebrate before she leaves for the hospital.
Registered nurse Gayle Cousar has had her share of clocking in on Christmas Day over the years. Cousar is in her 41st year of nursing, year No. 35 at EGRMC.
Cousar works in the Intensive Care Unit where a typical shift lasts 12 hours, but on Christmas Day, the nurses split the shift.
“Sometimes we split six and six, and we try to make sure the ones with small children are off in the morning,” said Cousar. “I can make it home in time for an afternoon lunch with the family.”
Cousar said they’ve gotten creative with scheduling at other times, too.
“We might say, ‘You go home for four hours and then come back,’” Cousar smiled, adding, “And there’s not a lot of people here to tell us we can’t.”
Cousar said that it’s quieter in the hospital in general on a holiday because doctors make every effort to discharge as many patients as feasibly possible, in order for them to be home with family. But patients on her floor are usually too sick to go home.
“We try to keep the Christmas spirit for our patients, though. We dress up in Christmas T-shirts, Santa hats. Not just for us, but for the patients. To give them a little Christmas cheer,” she said. “Christmas morning is quieter. Even physicians aren’t making rounds. It’s just staff and patients. But about midday, visitors start to arrive. Family, church visitors come by.”
Cousar said the nurses go the extra mile to make it special for the patients, but also work hard to make the day special for each other.
“That’s the beautiful thing about working in a smaller town, smaller hospital. We’re family. We look out for each other. Some of us have worked together many, many years; spent many Christmases together. We’ve had to see some of our own folks’ family go through some really hard times, here in ICU,” she said.
Cousar said even the days leading up to the holidays are special on the floor, as doctors’ offices and others often gift the nurses with treats.
“The breakroom is always full of snacks and candies. And nurses are notorious for breakroom potlucks. We try to have lunch together on Christmas day, as close together as we can, taking turns covering the floor,” she said.
Registered nurse Nicola Stansel and her department peers are possibly the exception to the rule of those who don’t want to be in the hospital on Christmas Day. Stansel is a Labor and Delivery nurse and has been for 18 years.
“I have the unique profession that allows me to witness the miracle of life every day,” said Stansel. “And it’s a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I’m a friend, a coach, a nurse; I have a bond with my patients. I rejoice when we have a happy, healthy delivery, but I’m also glad I’m there to help when there’s a problem.”
Stansel harbors no bitterness about working on holidays at all. “It’s part of being a nurse,” she said.
Stansel beamed when she added, “That pure joy when they hear the baby cry for the first time, it makes every long shift worth it. Not everybody can say they’ve been with folks on the best day of their lives.”
Stansel said she knew that she wanted to be a nurse by the time she was 5 years old.
The L & D nurse said that she and her workmates from the Women’s Pavilion, Labor and Delivery and Postpartum departments share the hospital-provided Christmas meal together, if possible, and then gather near the nurses’ station, decorated with a small tree and cards from nurses and patients, and “wait for our Christmas baby.”
“We love Christmas babies,” she said.
None of her own babies, now 17, 15 and 12, were born on Christmas Day, but, ironically, her nephew was born on Dec. 25 in another city.
Stansel said she gets stopped all the time in the grocery store and other places for moms or dads to tell their kids that Stansel was their nurse at birth.
“The great part of living in a small town is that I get to see some of my babies as they grow up,” she said.
Stansel speaks for all three when she says of her profession, “I can’t imagine doing anything else!”