‘I sat with her and held her hand and listened’: the true stories of NHS staff at Christmas
Laura Silver investigates the real experiences of those on the NHS frontline at Christmas and shines a light on the often unknown sacrifices they make, every year.
In 2016, former junior doctor turned comedian, Adam Kay, stood on stage at the Edinburgh Festival, recounting his experiences during six years working for the NHS. Just one year later, he published those diaries, in a book which became an instant success, flying off the shelves and being passed from hand-to-hand with, if you’ll pardon the pun, viral velocity. Now, two years on, Adam’s million-copy bestselling book, This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, has been followed by a second, dedicated to his experiences during the festive season: Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas.
While entries from Adam’s diaries are renowned for their hilarity, warmth and cringe-worthy moments (the ‘de-gloving’ incident is forever imprinted on us all), the sentiment that has lingered in the collective memory of the nation is undoubtedly the relentless personal strain that NHS staff endure.
And Adam certainly isn’t alone in his experiences.
Shining a light on the sacrifices made by NHS staff at Christmas is something he is passionate about – and as journalist Laura Silver investigates, it’s no wonder. Here, Laura spoke to doctors on the frontline of the NHS to understand exactly what they go through during the festive season.
Download a thank you card for NHS staff working over Christmas below.
When your boss waves you off early on Christmas Eve, NHS staff across the country will be clocking on for long shifts, just as they do any day of the year.
People get sick no matter what the calendar says, and while scheduled operations, clinics, and most GP surgeries tend to take a break when the festivities reach their peak, plenty of people still find themselves in hospital, along with the doctors, nurses, paramedics and porters whose duty it is to care for them.
That doesn’t stop NHS staff making the best of it. 'Everyone seems a bit sweeter at Christmas – patients and staff – I think there's a weird camaraderie that we're all stuck here,' said Dr Philip Lee, a consultant acute physician and geriatrician in London, who will be working this Christmas.
'Lots of us dress up in Christmas sweaters, or blinking antlers or Santa hats, so it's more fun than usual,' he added.
'Of course you’d rather be with your own loved ones, but the actual shift is nice – it’s a version of Christmas,' said children’s doctor Dr Katie Rogerson.
'Paramedics will come in with presents and hand them out, and your consultant will sometimes be Santa. I don’t know if it’s because people are happier or because of the Christmas spirit, but patients always seem a bit better. There always seems to be a bit of a Christmas miracle.'
But a hospital is a hospital after all, and emergencies often eclipse wardside festivities, as Dr Lee remembers from one of the first Christmas shifts he ever worked. 'It was really quiet, no one came in really, and we were in the staff room enjoying some fine Filipino food brought in by nurses,' he recalled. 'Then the red phone went off: "Paediatric trauma call, Road Traffic Collision. ETA 3 minutes."'
Staff immediately sprung into action.
'It was an unconscious child, hit by a driver who left the scene. We worked as a team to stabilise her as much as we could, but it became clear she had suffered a catastrophic brain injury,' Lee continued. 'We put down a breathing tube, stabilised her as much as we could, and transferred her to a specialist hospital.'
And after that, it’s back to work again. 'You have to be completely normal. I think we lock that stuff inside and hope you'll never have to deal with it,' he added.
Sometimes a doctor might not be scheduled to work Christmas, but in the end, their patient needs them more than they need to crack into the Bailey’s, as Dr Jess Potter, a respiratory specialist in London found one Christmas Eve.
As she reached the end of her shift, the family of an elderly woman she had been caring for had still not arrived. 'I was with a patient and she was definitely going to die,' Potter said.
Rather than rush off to meet her husband to drive from London to Bristol as planned, Potter stayed. 'I didn’t want her to be on her own so I sat with her and held her hand and listened to all these amazing stories,' she recalled. 'I held her hand as she died.'
After a tearful journey home in the early hours of Christmas morning, Potter was able to spend the day with her family, before heading back to London to 'do it all again from 8 am on Boxing Day.'
But, Potter, like most doctors, wouldn’t have it any other way. 'That’s just what we do in the NHS at any time of year,' she said. 'It’s just part of the job.'
According to the NHS*, last year on Christmas day alone, 400,000 NHS staff members sacrificed time with their loved ones to care for patients and their families.
Midwives, nurses, assistants, paramedics – not to mention the catering staff that serve hundreds of thousands of Christmas lunches that day; our NHS is an impossibly intricate sum of many unique cogs, each often powered, it would seem, simply by selflessness and a desire to help.
Do you know an NHS employee spending their Christmas removing babies and baubles from the various places they get stuck? We have created a downloadable card for you to print and send to anyone you know on the festive front line.
You can also post your thank you to the NHS on social media using #MerryXmasNHS and #NightshiftBeforeXmas, and the below downloadable images.
*Statistics, which were quoted by the NHS, can be found here.