Working on Christmas: How nurses and doctors stay festive on the clock

BALTIMORE -

There’s no shortage of holiday cheer at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital.

Walk down any of the Baltimore hospital’s halls in the days before Christmas, and you’ll see doors decked with colorful wreaths and tinsel, plus a tree on just about every floor.

One nurse’s station even features a tree fashioned mostly out of latex gloves and hospital bracelets, the brainchild of one of the night shift nurses.

“The staff always makes the best of Christmas,” nurse manager Donna Stevens said.

On Friday, Christmas Day, it’ll be a lot quieter than usual—but the festive mood will remain, with a skeleton crew of hospital staffers celebrating with potluck meals and smiles.

“Along with Super Bowl Sunday, it’s the slowest day of the year,” said Dr. Richard Lebow, an emergency room physician.  

Most of the patients who come to the ER on Christmas are ones that really need to be there, Lebow said—because no one wants to go to the hospital on Christmas.

Lebow estimates he’s worked about 20 Christmas shifts in his 37 years at the hospital, many before he married his wife, he added with a laugh.

He’s Jewish, but she isn’t—and “she’s like a kid” at Christmas, he said.

On the years he does have to work—like this year—his family misses him, Lebow said.

“But they know it’s a job that’s 24/7,” he said. “We all signed up for it.”

Registered nurse Deborah Liberatore, who has been working at the hospital since 1977, echoed Lebow’s thoughts.

“Most Christmases, I’ve worked nights, so it’s very subdued and quiet,” she said.

She’s worked “many” Christmas shifts at the hospital, working every other year for 20 years, then every third year.

“Now it’s a lottery,” Liberatore said.

She is scheduled to work Christmas, but may not have to come in depending on how busy it is.

“You come into it knowing you have to do these, and you just do it,” she said of holiday shifts.

Really, it’s just like any other day, said registered nurses Bonnie Burrier and Helen Ford.

And no one at the hospital is immune.

Bradley Chambers, president of MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital and MedStar Union Memoral Hospital, and senior vice president of MedStar Health, recalled one Christmas on which he was the on-call administrator.

As luck would have it, it snowed—six or seven inches, enough to be inconvenient. Buses weren’t running, and the roads weren’t plowed.

“I got to my parents’ house very late that night,” Chambers said.

Lebow said working on Christmas is something of a mixed blessing.

Everyone tends to be very upbeat that day. But some years, the inevitable death or other tragedy happens, and then doctors and nurses have to inform the patient’s loved ones on Christmas.

“That’s the real downside,” Lebow said. “But there have been some babies born, too, and that’s obviously very special.”

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