No one wants to be in the hospital at Christmas.
Well, maybe some people do, especially if they're lonely. Certainly everyone whose deductible starts over again in January seems to. But despite the urgency patients feel to have elective surgery over the holidays, I sense that none of them is really happy about it. Neither am I, for that matter. I hate that December is always my busiest month (71 cases this time around).
So, every December, there is generally an undercurrent of "Bah, humbug!" lurking in the hospital hallways, sort of like the invisible coating of drug-resistant bacteria on the ICU surfaces. This never helps me percolate any kind of holiday spirit.
Early this month, I stopped at the drugstore to pick up some toiletries. Next to the shampoo section, my eye caught a display of silly over-the-top antler headgear festooned with blinking Christmas lights. I found myself grinning a little and thinking what my son would say if I picked him up from school wearing a set of those antlers. So I bought a set out of mischief - what are parents for if not embarrassing their preadolescent kids?!
On the way home, wearing those blinking antlers, I realized I was still grinning - and I came up with a very un-Grinch-like idea.
The next day, I arrived in preop holding wearing my white coat... and my antlers. The staff gaped, then giggled. I went to see my first patient and watched the anxiety on her face melt into laughter. She rolled back to the OR still smiling. And so it went, all day long. It was the most fun I'd had on a workday in December since - who knows?
The OR staff enjoyed it so much that on my next OR day, several of them brought in Christmas headdresses of various types: elf ears, Santa hats, snowflake crowns. I myself bought enough headgear that I wore a different set every operating day through the 23rd. My inpatients looked forward to seeing what would come next; one actually wanted to stay an extra day just to see what my head would look like. Every patient seemed a little brighter than usual this month (a lot like my head!).
I have always thought that humor is a key to communicating with patients and making them feel at ease. I use it whenever I can. My Christmas headgear experience has made me realize how big a difference it can really make, not just in the patients, but in us as physicians, too. A laugh can dispel the shadows of fear in a patient's mind; they're all afraid, each in their own way. We, too, are afraid - of the things we can't control, of the grimness of disease and death. Just as the Hogwarts students could dispel creatures resembling their greatest fears with humor ("Riddikulus!"), so do we have the power to help our patients and ourselves grapple with the dread of illness.
I wish we all could recognize this. Interesting, some of the comments I heard from my colleagues when they saw my festive antlers. Twice: "I don't know if I'd have the confidence to have someone wearing those operate on my brain!" "Do you really let your patients see you in those?!" Most telling: "I bet not many neurosurgeons would be seen wearing those..."
No, sadly, probably not. Ours is notoriously such a dignified, serious profession. The classic image of a neurosurgeon is a tall, graying man in a suit and tie with a grave expression who can burst into a tirade at the drop of a hat. No smiles, no fun, and certainly no antlers for him! After all, the patients and the world must hold him in the utmost regard! I have always secretly been pleased to look (and to be) nothing like that classic stereotype. Our field needs more laughter... and more humanity.
That's the comment (from a chaplain) that struck me most: "I am glad to see you wearing that. It lets the patients see that you are human."
Indeed. I couldn't agree more. If I learned anything from my Christmas antler experiment, it is that many physicians still take themselves too seriously. We have an important job, no question. But if we are to give our patients the best care, we must find ways to connect with them on a human level. We need to pay less attention to our dignity and more to empathy, all year round. A little laughter, sometimes directed at ourselves, would go a long way in all our relationships.
In this season, we celebrate the Incarnation, the perfect divine coming to share the imperfect human experience. What a good time to put the physician "God complex" behind us and show our patients that we, too, can listen, can cry, and ... yes, can laugh.