Working the Christmas shift

When most of us are at home with our families, friends and loved ones on Christmas, some of our colleagues will be at Elkhart General, Community Hospital of Bremen and Memorial Hospital caring for those who are sick. Spending the holiday in the hospital can be especially hard on children and their families, so our doctors, nurses and other clinical staff and associates go out of their way to comfort our young patients and their families. We asked a Beacon Children’s Hospital nurse and physician to offer their perspectives on what it’s like to work the Christmas shift. Grab tissues if they are handy, but also know that these clinicians believe it is a privilege to care for children on Christmas Day.

“There’s something magical about working a holiday shift in a hospital. Yes, we are not with our families but instead we get to share the holiday with our “work family”. We like sharing our stories of family traditions and often bring a favorite dish in to share with co-workers. We recognize the families we serve would much rather be home celebrating their own traditions with the people they love but sometimes, especially at Christmas, we become their family.

“Christmas is very special at Beacon Children’s hospital; I notice co-workers humming or whistling a favorite Christmas song. Donations from a very generous community start arriving putting our Child Life Department in high gear making sure Santa is ready to serve our patients on the big day. This is the first year to celebrate Christmas in our beautiful new space but I’m sure the dynamics will remain the same. A day or two before Christmas we will be discharging as many of the kids as possible, parents will work with Child Life to ensure Santa knows which gifts will delight their child. The families are so very appreciative of any attempt to bring some Holiday cheer to their child. Christmas in a hospital can bring incredible joy but sadness as well. As a nurse I have experienced some of the most significant moments in my patient’s lives. Two such Christmas moments come to mind.

“One particular Christmas I recall one of our kids not doing well. There was no way this teenage girl was going to be home for Christmas. Christmas Eve brought her entire family to her room complete with decorations and gifts. A family meal was set up in the lounge and gifts were exchanged. I would see tears in the eyes as I looked more closely at the parents and grandparents. After the wrapping was cleaned and the family went home  I checked on our patient. I found her mom in the bed holding her beautiful girl as she slept with just a hint of Christmas carols playing in the background. In the soft lighting they looked so peaceful but on closer inspection mom had tears rolling down her cheeks. In the quiet of the night she was realizing this would most likely be her last Christmas with her precious girl. She was right, our beautiful, brave girl lost her fight about a month later.

“The other Christmas shift I remember had a boy around 5 years old coming to our floor due to an injury. He was inconsolable…not because of the injury…he was sure Santa would miss him at the hospital. I reassured him Santa always knows where he is, Santa is magic. This little guy insisted his letter to Santa had his home address on it so that’s where Santa would be expecting him. We set him up with crayons and paper so he could get a new list to Santa. I explained hospitals have a Fax number for The North Pole for just this reason. As he worked on his letter I pumped mom for some detailed information like the names of siblings and a reasons he would be on Santa’s “nice” list. We had some Holiday printer paper in the office so I penned a return letter from Santa using some of the details mom had given me. I took the letter to the admitting desk and asked them once they get our fax from my little patient to fax our letter back to us on the Peds unit. My little patient accompanied me to the fax machine and off went his letter to Santa. We sat there patiently waiting for our confirmation from the North Pole, it was only minutes but felt like hours. When our fax came in he literally squealed. After his excitement faded down we finally got him settled in bed. I later slipped both letters to mom to keep as a memory of the Christmas spent with us. Looking over his sleeping head she whispered a “thank you” to me.  And, yes, Santa did visit him that night.

“Everyone wants  to be with their families snug at home on Christmas, but I find some of my most precious memories are the times spent helping my patients and their families when they need us the most. It seems our patients recognize our sacrifice and realize we are in this together. We will hold a major role in stories they will share for years to come about the Christmas they spent in the hospital.”

— Julie Kowalenko, RN, CPN
Beacon Children’s Hospital


“As a pediatric intensivist, it is always a privilege to be a part of a child’s journey with their family during the most difficult time in their lives. It is an even greater honor to be part of that journey on Christmas.

“No patient wants to be in the hospital during Christmas, especially a child. They would much rather be at home helping their parents decorate their Christmas tree and opening gifts from Santa on Christmas Day. I have worked on Christmas Day for the last two years and both of them have been unforgettable experiences.

“A couple of years ago, I took care of a young child who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. Unfortunately, this was going to be his last Christmas. His family was devastated. For this to happen during the holidays made it even worse. But this boy somehow understood what was going on with him, and seemed calm and unfazed about his diagnosis. I was so amazed by his level of maturity and understanding. Kids are more tenacious than adults and it gives them a unique ability to fight illnesses and makes them so much stronger and resilient. We were all extremely sad for his family, but decided to make that Christmas a memorable one for them.

“The entire PICU staff came together to decorate his very own Christmas tree. We also had Santa come and visit the boy and give him gifts. I cannot forget the look on his face when he saw Santa. He was so happy! We also had his dog visit him on Christmas Day. It is astonishing to me how sadness brings people together. The family was so grateful for everything. They said that they would remember that Christmas in his the hospital forever. Sadly, the child passed away a few weeks later.

“Last year, I was caring for a newborn baby who had been on heart and lung life support for quite some time, but just before Christmas grew strong enough to be taken off. We were able to get the breathing tube out right before Christmas. The parents were so excited and happy to finally be able to see their baby’s face without all the lines and tubes. They were also able to hold their baby for the very first time on Christmas Day. It took the entire staff working together to make this happen for the family. No words can describe how the parents felt that day. I felt so fortunate that I had made the right career choice and this experience was rewarding in another way. It reminded me to appreciate and be thankful for the simplest but most important things in life.

“We, as health professionals, experience highs and lows in our jobs. It is no different on Christmas. We are away from our homes and celebrating Christmas with our work families. The entire ICU becomes one whole big family and shares in one another’s joys and sorrows. This is my first Christmas at Beacon Children’s Hospital and I will be working with my entire PICU family to make this day a memorable one for the kids and their parents who have to be in the hospital. Our atrium looks like a gorgeous winter wonderland and I hope our families find solace and happiness in these hospital walls, away from their homes.

“I hope Santa brings all joy and no sorrow this Christmas to all the kids and their parents here and across the world. Hope is all that these little ones have, and we at Beacon Children’s Hospital believe that Christmas is all about keeping that hope alive.”

— Dr. Nikhil Patankar, Pediatric Intensivist
Beacon Children’s Hospital