In the days before Christmas, most people find themselves scrambling to find a last-minute present, dashing to the store for that one ingredient to the family bread pudding recipe they forgot or wrestling unwieldy gift wrap, ribbons and bows.
For workers in the city’s emergency rooms, things look a lot different. Instead of gearing up for a day of nursing a food coma on the family couch, they prepare for some of the busiest days of the year, tending to illnesses and injuries, many of them coming straight from the heated climate of a Christmas dinner table packed with family members whose opinions we’ve been spared for the past year.
“Family is obliged to congregate,” said Dr. Foster Kordisch, medical director of the emergency department at Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center. Festive spirits as well as family feuds can easily go overboard, leading to an increase in alcohol-related illnesses and injuries, as well as those caused by domestic conflicts, according to Kordisch.
Add to that the closure of doctors’ offices and a particularly bad flu season, the last week of the year is easily the most demanding for emergency room personnel, who rush to save lives and ease pain while everyone else is taking a break.
“When primary care offices are closed and there’s less access to care, we become the stopgap measure for the community,” said Dr. Henry Kaufman, chief medical officer for Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center. Kaufman estimates that during the winter months, the emergency department at Lourdes has a patient load that’s 10-20% higher than during the rest of the year, with another 10-15% increase around specific holidays.
The highest workload for ER staff usually arrives on the day after a major holiday, when the consequences of overeating or hitting the bottle a little too hard become apparent, both Kordisch and Kaufman noted. Cases of patients in mental health crises increase too, as people struggle with loneliness during a time traditionally spent with loved ones.
To lighten the load and make sure everyone receives the care they need, especially on a day when most people would likely prefer to be home with their families rather than spend hours waiting in the ER, Kaufman advises patients to consider other ways of accessing medical care, especially through urgent care clinics. “The ERs are really designed to take care of the sickest people that we have,” he said, noting most respiratory infections, minor injuries or gastrointestinal problems — common problems patients come to the ER with — can often be resolved in an urgent care setting.
Triaging patients based on the severity of their illness or injury is crucial to managing the influx of patients ERs see during this time of year, said Shaniqua Meaux, a nurse in Lourdes’ emergency department. “People feel like they get looked over or skipped sometimes,” Meaux said of what can be a tense atmosphere. “We want to take care of everyone, and we will take care of everyone.”
Despite the stress, Meaux doesn’t mind working the holidays. “We’re taking care of people,” she said. “They’re super sad. They’re not with their family today, it’s different for them.” Meaux and her mother, who works as a home care aid, usually postpone their holiday celebration to New Year’s.
Many of their colleagues come from a background of service, either in a health care setting or in the hospitality industry, said Benjamin Bayless, who will be working his first Christmas as a nurse at Lourdes this year. “A lot of people come from or have experience with service,” Bayless said, “taking care of somebody whether you’re waiting on them at a table or you have healthcare in your background.”
But it isn’t all stress and hard work for emergency room personnel during the holidays either. “We’re gonna have our potluck, we’re gonna have each other, we’re still gonna have a good day,” Meaux said. “We will be with our work family, and we’ll see our family, most of us, after we get off.”