December 21, 2018

'A strange time in the hospital': Inside a melancholy, joyful Christmas week on the ward

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Dec. 17, 2019.

    Few people would choose to spend Christmas week away from their families and in a hospital, but "for all its pain and misery," the hospital "often imposes a kind of downtime that creates a space for the reflection we forgo in our daily lives," Dhruv Khullar, a physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, writes for the New York Times' "Well."

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    A time for reflection—for patients and doctors alike

    Khullar acknowledges that "Christmas week is a strange time in the hospital." Patients are forced to lie in bed "while the world hangs ornaments and roasts chestnuts on open fires." It's also the time of year, when hospital staff and providers may feel more heavily "the weight of jobs that too often keep them close to computers and far from their families," Khullar explains. 

    And yet, at the same time, a hospital stay can really force people to slow down and spend that one-on-one time that is so cherished around the holidays, Khullar writes. "It's not uncommon to hear a family member say they finally understand their loved one, or that they've reconnected after years apart."

    To make this point, Khullar recalls the story of a father and son "who hadn't seen [each other] in years." The father and son reconnected when the father was in the hospital around Christmastime.

    Every morning when Khullar went to check on the patient, the son would be asking his father questions he'd never before had a chance to ask: "What did you love most about Mom?" and "What were you most proud of?"

    The patient's son said, "I've learned more this week than in all the years before," the son said. "I got to know him because I was there."

    The importance of experiences like the patient and his son's illustrate an "unavoidable truth" that there's "no substitute for being there"—and that's "as true for doctors as it is for families," Khullar contends. He writes, "The moments that made me the doctor I am didn't come while reading X-rays on a computer." Rather, "[t]hey came late in the afternoon when a family wanted to talk prognosis," Khullar recalls, "or in the middle of the night when a patient couldn't breathe—and I was the only one around."

    Making time for reflection

    While the hospital around the holidays fosters personal connection, the importance of making and keeping personal connections throughout the year and throughout our lives shouldn't be ignored, Khullar writes.

    According to Khullar, research shows it's vitally important to "nurtur[e] our relationships for long-term health and happiness," and that "uninterrupted downtime" is critical to strengthening our bonds with our loved ones.

    But, while most of us accept this as fact, we still "leave weeks of paid vacation time on the table, instead opting for more work," Khullar writes. He notes that Americans eat about three-quarters of meals outside the home, and half of parents in the United States say they don't spend enough time with their children.

    While Khullar acknowledges a hospital stay "is not an imposition [he'd] wish on anyone," he said Americans need to be better at creating "environments that facilitate downtime with loved ones" in a way a hospital can.

    The key, according to Khullar, is to carve out uninterrupted time, and to find a space to spend with loved ones, "where no other options exist." He writes, "Commit to meaningful experiences far in advance, to guard from the inevitable obligations and distractions that arise."

    Khullar writes, "Create traditions that turn decisions about whether and when to spend time together into rituals of how and where to spend time together. ... Because too often we wait until tragedy strikes" and loved ones may be too sick to speak (Khullar, "Well," New York Times, 12/19).

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