Holiday Guide 2009: ER nurse

At 4:30 a.m., Leesburg is a ghost town, even on Christmas Day. Soon kids will be launching themselves at the tree and their groaning parents will be yawning into their coffee. But at this hour, the streets are empty of traffic on Terri Wilson's way to work, and they will be almost as quiet at 4:30 p.m., when she drives away from the emergency room of Leesburg Regional Medical Center.

Work, however, is another matter. Unlike many jobs that require staffers on Christmas, the ER sees just as many patients on this day as any other. The nurses pipe in Christmas music, but "it's not necessarily quiet," says Wilson, a registered nurse and respiratory therapist. "No."

In her 29 years as a nurse — including 10 years in the ER and six in the neonatal intensive care unit — she's seen her share of Christmas births and deaths: motorcycle accidents with "bones sticking out and guts wide open" and miracle births in the NICU, 1-pound babies whose parents will be hospital residents for months to follow, bonding with staff like family. And there are always the partiers who've imbibed a bit too much and fallen into some sort of mishap and the turkey-carving accidents. But the most troubling patients? The depressed and lonely.

"We have one range of patients that come to the hospital on the holidays because they live alone and they're so lonely, believe it or not." Wilson pauses. "You have your partiers, as well as, like I said before, major depression for a lot of people, and then the partying ends and, uh," Wilson trails off, then brightens. "So it's a variety. We've had births on Christmas that are phenomenal, and we've also had deaths on Christmas Day that are horrible … but we've still got some good rapport."

Hospital personnel with small children tend to be the ones who get the day off. Some might resent this, but Wilson is relentlessly upbeat about her two decades of ER yuletides and insists, "There's a camaraderie." Now that her kids are grown up, she doesn't mind taking a family Christmas Eve and spending the day at work: "We let the nurses with younger kids have that day."

She estimates she has worked Christmas Day for "probably the last 20 years. My kids would like me not to, but they're so used to it now."

Surprisingly, there's not much of a pay differential for the day — wages are only 15 to 18 percent higher than a regular shift — and, Wilson says, "It gets frustrating. Hospitals are no longer hospitals, they're businesses. But when I lose my perspective I go back to the patient care … my patients are my whole job."

Even in the sterile environs of the ER, a Christmas shift retains the feeling of a special day; it's a holiday whether you're at home or at work, after all, and the ER staff do what they can to make it festive. They play Christmas carols, they wear holiday scrubs and silly hats, and everybody brings in special dishes. The nurses, doctors and EMTs get together for potluck: "Everybody comes in, everybody eats, everybody at least lets go some of the stress that we're dealing with of the day. It's a good thing."

And at the end of the day, instead of cleaning up after a big family dinner, Wilson goes home with a paycheck and some tasty leftovers.


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