’Tis the season to be jolly careful

For the NHS, Christmas is a perilous time of year. About 80,000 people a year need treatment for Christmas-related injuries. The NHS website “Live Well” gives an insight into the hazards. Common accidents include: falling out of the loft while getting the decorations down; falling off a ladder while putting the decorations up; scratching your eye on the tree while retrieving a present; gouging yourself with sharp objects while wrestling your gift open.

Children are particularly problematic: they bite into baubles, eat the fairy lights and fall into ovens. Over lunch, if the turkey doesn’t get you, you may injure yourself with the nutcrackers. After lunch, the unlucky discover that “the stairs are an accident hotspot”. This is not to mention stress – “Plan a lovely long walk for a change of scene and some fresh air. Everybody will feel better and pleasantly tired instead of irritably tired,” the Live Well site advises. (While doctors are no longer supposed to intone like patriarchal figures from the 1950s, NHS propaganda suffers from no such constraints.)

You wouldn’t think anyone would want Christmas in hospital. It emphasises the misery of being ill, a situation unlikely to be alleviated by seeing the ward porter in a gigantic pair of elf ears. Every doctor who touches you smells of chocolate; your nurse is wearing sparkly deely-boppers.

It’s not the staff’s favourite time of year either. I remember arriving at the doctor’s office for one Christmas day night shift thinking there would almost certainly be some seasonal magic involved, to be met by three junior doctors, a broken mince pie and an atmosphere of mingled hunger and melancholy. To be fair, there’s usually something to eat lying around – offering unique opportunities for food poisoning among the staff. Fondly remembered: the surgical Christmas buffet laid out in an overheated side office on multiple paper plates. People were still popping in to grab handfuls of Camembert and warm ham the day after Boxing Day. Infection control is flouted. Treats are usually laid out in the cardboard bowls we use to catch vomit; the advice is to pick one from the middle of the stack. “Hygiene is important,” said the registrar who sent me to fetch a container into which he was planning to decant a family pack of peanuts. “You don’t want the one off the top, you don’t know who’s touched it.”

One year I worked on a respiratory ward over the holidays. We spent the week before Christmas Eve trying extra-hard to get people discharged for Christmas. We nagged the physiotherapists and the occupational therapists and the social worker. Meanwhile, several patients got mysteriously worse. One was suddenly too weak to get out of bed; another began wheezing noisily whenever anyone approached. In one bay containing four elderly gentlemen (two with lung cancer, two with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), three grew suddenly unclear about who might be at home to take care of them when they left. Our consultant was puzzled and reproachful. “I’m sure you’re feeling better than you’re letting on, aren’t you Mr Corrie?” Mr Corrie wasn’t sure.

When I came back later to write up Mr Corrie’s drug chart, he was showing his neighbour a handful of photographs from the war: himself in uniform with a selection of young ladies. The Christmas day menu card was on his table: he had ticked “Turkey with all the trimmings” and underlined it in black biro. “What are you having?” I asked his neighbour. “Same,” he replied.

Sophie Harrison is a hospital doctor in South Yorkshire

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