It is that time of year again when everyone gathers around the Christmas tree to enjoy the presents, the food and the drink …
As idyllic as this sounds, sometimes the holiday season just does not live up to its expectations of joy, peace, and goodwill.
According to the UK’s NHS, over 80,000 people a year need hospital treatment during the festive period.
Whether it is delivering the first baby of the New Year or attending to an accident victim, for some medical professionals Christmas and New Year’s Day are just another day in the ‘office’.
Across the world this year, thousands of healthcare professionals will either be staffing local healthcare facilities or be on-call for emergencies during the December holiday season.
Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses do not take days off and heart-related deaths are considered to increase by 5% during the holiday season, with fatal heart attacks peaking on Christmas Day, the day after Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
The biggest stress factor for members of healthcare teams at this time of the year is finding balance between professional obligations and time spent with family.
All physicians, when starting their careers, will find this out quickly as when it comes to holiday coverage and scheduling, all shifts must be covered.
Anyone who wants to become a physician should anticipate working over the holidays. Although it is not easy to get used to this fact, the feeling changes as soon as the young doctor realises what the patient in front of him/her is suffering and quickly accepts the necessity of being there and the joy of being able to help.
As the years pass, doctors quickly learn that they are there for a good reason and that working at Christmas is just another day in the hospital. They see it all, from heart attacks to food poisoning, to house fire victims … doctors soon realise that even if they miss being with the family, it is worse to be the sick patient in a hospital on Christmas or New Year’s Day instead of being home and healthy with their family.
Holidays are a stressful time for many reasons, and for people from all walks of life. The emergency department is really an epicenter for all things during the holidays.
Heart attacks, other emergencies spike during holidays
Although people tend to delay care around the holidays, stress, overeating and excessive partying can lead to unnecessary trips to the emergency room. Symptoms of cardiovascular disease such as abdominal or chest discomfort are interpreted as indigestion or overeating, but in fact it could be cardiac ischemia.
If asked why they did not come sooner, patients frequently answer that they had a lot to do, there was a party, or they were traveling and thought it was not serious.
Because the symptoms are similar, people can sometimes confuse a serious heart condition with acid reflux or heartburn, especially around the time of holiday feasting as they have a lot more to think about.
Heart-related deaths increase by 5% during the holiday season.
Cardiac ischemia could lead to more heart damage if it is not treated quickly. Insufficient blood flow to the heart muscle can lead to congestive heart failure, end-stage heart disease and even death. Overeating and stress typically associated with the holiday season could exacerbate existing conditions.
Holidays are a time when people really increase the amount of salt and fat they eat. Most people do not notice the difference but, for those with heart failure, the slight increase in salt intake can result in big problems.
Emergency departments flooded with alcohol intoxication patients
Another excess that fills the emergency room during the winter holidays involves binge alcohol consumption, specially during New Year’s Eve.
Alcohol intoxication cases can be up to 70% of the total number of patients that are seen at the ER. Frequently, these patients are so intoxicated that they are not able to walk or talk. They can become unconscious, have trouble breathing and sometimes even die.
Holidays are an excuse for people to indulge in binge drinking.
This influx of intoxicated patients can stretch resources at a typical emergency room, because there is no antidote to alcohol intoxication.
“We must wait until their blood alcohol level decreases and that is a slow process,” said an experienced emergency doctor. “Basically, we are left with lots of patients in semi-conscious states. They often spend six or eight hours with us until they are sufficiently sober to go home.”
Doctors and nurses must monitor these patients while treating other non-preventable emergencies that bring people to the ER.
“People ought to have a good time on New Year’s Eve but drinking responsibly means a lot, not only to yourself but to other individuals as well,” the doctor said. “If you become so intoxicated that you lose consciousness and need to be transported to an emergency department, that has an impact on other patients. As with most things, know your limits and listen to your body.”
And even if they survive … the party is over before time.
Some other Christmas calamities
Implement safe practice when testing festive lights as you manipulate these pretty additions to your tree in order to avoid injuries, including electric shock or burns and negative effects on your heart and muscles.
Overindulgence at Christmas can blow both the budget and the waistline. Choosing wisely and enjoying in moderation may be important. Anyway, do not feel too bad about that second helping of Christmas pudding …
Hospital Christmas spirit
Many nurses and doctors in several hospitals have proved, through the festive season, that hospitals are not just sterile, cold, humourless places! They make their hospitals seem like the most festive places to be in during the Christmas time, and they do it with a great sense of humour, by using stuff like blood vials and even urinals for their Christmas decorations. A Christmas tree made of semi-sterile gloves, babies wrapped warmly in Christmas stockings, a Christmas spirit garland made entirely of pee jars! These medical professionals surely know how to turn their workplaces into warm, friendly, winter wonderlands as if by a wave of a magic wand – sorry… scalpel.
Above all, enjoy a happy and healthy holiday period. In increasingly busy and difficult times, it is easy to forget that sometimes the smallest acts of kindness and compassion can make the biggest difference.
Wishing you all a healthy
“responsible” Merry Christmas.
Dra. Maria Alice
Dr Maria Alice is a consultant in General and Family Medicine. General Manager/Medical Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service. Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve/ Hospital S. Gonçalo de Lagos