Having been closed off from the rest of the world by my hospital ward window these past 5 months, I have been somewhat sheltered and oblivious to the silent horrors that continue to be inconveniently inflicted upon us from the outside. 2020 has been a whole bunch of short straws, for all of us, only, there was never anything but short straws to be drawn in the first place. Outside my window, a lone Christmas tree stands next to the hospital carpark, twinkling dully in the grey iron rain. Behind it stands a building site, monstrous and glowing; the new COVID hospital, built over just two months, in preparation for the second wave that we now find ourselves predictably plunged into. Still, we await the availability of extra staff to be deployed there, yet there are already patients occupying its beds, growing in its numbers by the day. It’s a bittersweet sight.
I knew Christmas wouldn’t be the same this year, I think we all knew this deep down. But I never thought it would be thisdifferent or challenging. All along, having been evicted and made homeless in the first lockdown, having had two admissions to Intensive Care that summer, followed by a temporary loss in all remaining sight with my progress through medical school on the line, then my Dad’s redundancy from his COVID-hit job, and finally my 5-month-til-present admission to hospital. Christmas was always going to be the one thing my family and I would stay focused on, looking forward to new hope, overdue reunion and a period of loving recuperation to end what has been the most hellish year for the entire world. Yet, it is only now that I am beginning to realise that we don’t have to be directly affected by COVID to still be ‘directly’ affected this Christmas…
I’m very wary that I have not posted in a very long time. Though I have perhaps been the most reflective in all of this time, I have also been the most paralysed from writing any of it down – my thoughts swallowed up in an alternating turmoil of just wanting so desperately to get back to normal, versus being too utterly tired and fed up to even care to share my personal journey through this. I suppose that’s what spending two thirds of 2020 as an inpatient in hospital does to you, right?
Given the latest lockdown measures that have been implemented over the last few days, it would be of no surprise that many of us are feeling particularly bitter and resentful this Christmas Day. Just a fortnight ago, I was being told by all three of my consultants, who have overseen my care that I was to expect big surgery this week, and, providing all went well, I would then hopefully be recovered enough to get home in time for Christmas. But how wrong was I. Last week, I faced the dreaded ward round that turned my world just that little bit more upside down, to the point that it now feels like its hanging from the tiniest thread by the littlest toe. They had changed their minds. All surgery has now been postponed; I am too unwell to undergo it for the time being, plus COVID has overwhelmed our hospital once more, and instead I now face Christmas and New Year remaining In hospital, hooked up to Total Parental Nutrition (TPN) and confined to bed with a catheter in situ, as my GI tract and bladder appear to fail. And yes, Idofeel bitter and resentful, but I also know that so many others have had it far worse; the ones whose life-saving treatment have been cancelled, the cancer services that have all gone abyss, and then those whose face-to-face encounters with the horrific coronavirus ended in loss of life, and loss of many a loved one. With COVID on a steep rise again, the doors have now been closed off once more, in a desperate attempt to contain it all over again, and so it be, more than ever, I feel trapped within the walls of a place I have spent my entire year fighting to break free from.
On a personal note, with such uncertainty over my discharge before now, my Mum had come to stay in my student house in Cardiff whilst we awaited news of any progress. My Papa, conveniently living only 20 minutes down the road, in the next few towns along, was recently diagnosed with both vascular and Alzheimer’s dementia. It has had us wondering whether this will be the last Christmas we and he truly remembers. As sole carer, my Mum was to take him home too, where we all belong, over 200 miles away, back in Kent. Until then, she tries to juggle having a daughter bedbound in hospital and an 88 year old father, widowed, alone, vulnerable, and sitting vacantly in his living room chair waiting to be called up for his turn of the COVID vaccine. How many more of our elderly loved ones would be in that same seat, waiting in silence? Whilst the three of us wait here in Wales, my younger sister and Dad remain in an entirely different country; Kent, England, awaiting our arrival, having delayed all Christmas-decorating until we return. My Dad nor my sister have seen neither myself or Mum properly in 5 months. The last time we were all together, the whole of us under one roof, seems only a long, distant memory – one as distant as Christmas feels this year. Our family feels utterly empty, completely split from both sides.
But, with the news that I would now be going nowhere for Christmas, I was heartbroken, devastated beyond measure, and too stunned for words. I spent all of last week in tears, hence my evident, untimely absence from social media. I couldn’t cry, due to the pain of having two tubes going up each nostril and down my throat. The pain of the heartbreak caused my teeth, nose, eye socket and head to seize up, but I’m too dehydrated and instead I frown red through dry eyes, dumbfounded as to what to say or what to suggest. I normally have a solution or way out of everything, but not this time. Eventually, I accept the doctors’ decision and try to remind myself that the best Christmas present I will get this year, although more than likely delayed, will be the far better health I will (hopefully) have in the New Year to come. In sheer guilt that my circumstances have already ruined Christmas for my sister, I beg my Mum to return home with my Papa so that she can be reunited with her younger daughter and husband, who weep each day as we try to look into each other’s eyes over FaceTime. At least they could have as normal a Christmas as possible, or so I thought…
But it’s too late. Different parts of the UK have already gone back into lockdown, all in quick succession. Instead, I am spending Christmas and New Year completely alone in hospital 200 miles away from any family. My Mum is also spending Christmas alone as she is now locked down in my student house. And then, my Papa, still sitting in silence, waiting for the Christmas miracle we are all still wishing upon – the COVID vaccine. Until then, he will wait some more, continuing to stare into space from his same old living room chair, waiting in a cold quiet. He would’ve most likely forgotten about his microwave meal for lunch too. As for my Dad and sister, with the speed of Kent going into Tier 4 overnight, there was to be no festive food to put on the table, no wife, no mother, or other daughter, and the Christmas tree still lies tied up in dust in the back of our attic, waiting for yet another year.
I will miss the sweet scent of Christmas pine needles this year, as they soon turn stale, and the nostalgia of that one morning in the entire year that will have long passed before I get home. Boxes of mince pies will no longer be selling on the shelves of the supermarkets (not that I particularly like the taste of mince pies anyway), and the beloved ugly Christmas jumper will collect another layer of year-long dust before it is worn in pride again. But, as I lie here, unable to move much, and often in great pain and rife nausea, I can’t help but think these things as unremarkably materialistic, and Christmas was never meant to be that way. The real Christmas gifts we should be giving out this year, or at least certainly the ones I had in mind, aren’t the sorts of gifts we can physically just put under the Christmas tree. Instead, the gifts of Christmas 2020 should be in the form of happiness, health, family. Warmth, safety, respite and love. And hopefully, in due course, two shots of the COVID vaccine too. Now that would be the best ever Christmas present, wouldn’t it?
It goes without saying that I have felt so monumentally let down by my own medical profession whilst I lie here as a long-stay inpatient. I have hit rock bottom so many times that it has almost put me off completing my medical degree to become a Doctor altogether. As I waved Maureen and Ivy, Sheila and Dorothy (all names changed for confidentiality purposes) home, happy that four families would now have their grandmothers home in time for Christmas, I couldn’t help but solemnly wonder why my own doctors couldn’t of made better effort to get me home to my family too. I would much rather be at home sipping homemade hot chocolate in front of our sparkly tree, instead of another cold mug of stale coffee from off the ward-round trolley. That, and the pureed packet roast dinners that go lumpy and lukewarm before they’re even plated up at the bedside, even though I can’t even eat the food anymore. And I wish for anything not to have to watch the bay’s double doors close again and again, as more trolleys of deceased patients pass down the corridor and off to the mortuary. Why do so many of our patients, neighbours, friends, have to die so close to Christmas? Why, just why, when this festive season is supposed to be nothing but the birth of new hope? But, whether I like it or not, I, am in the epicentre of what Christmas should be all about celebrating this year; and that is the NHS. Throughout this all, Christmas or not, it continues to fight for our lives and our living. I watch nurses and nursing assistants, of whom I’ve grown to become great friends with over these past many months, run from end to end, mop their brows, bend their backs – all carrying on despite the sheer trauma, fatigue, endlessness and debilitating staff shortages. Even if I can’t have mine, where are their Christmasses? The ones who deserve it the most? The ugly truth? – COVID doesn’t stop for Christmas so nor can they.
I never intended on writing a depressing blog post, especially given it’s my first in such a long time. But, as I often do, I want to use my experiences of heartbreak to fix the hearts of others who may be feeling just as lost and as angry as I am right now. If anything, it has made me feel more uplifted, curious as to what a hospital Christmas is really like, something I am sure I will have many an experience of when I am the junior doctor working the Christmas Day rota in the near future. Turns out though, if you order in marshmallows and squirty cream, they will still make up a Christmas Eve hot chocolate for you, albeit without the Christmas tree backdrop and sister selfies. The Christmas dinner, though chewy and hard, still comes with a cute little cracker that you get to pull with the jolly catering staff as they come round, not the slightest bit bitter that they have to work Christmas Day. It is also perfectly acceptable to wear bright reindeer slipper socks without anybody judging you for it (if anything, it becomes a fun inside contest as to which member of staff or patient can pull off the coolest festive outfit). And, to my child-at-heart delight, Santa did still come on Christmas Eve too – somehow, in the midst of me having a string of seizures in the early hours of Christmas morning, ward A6 nursing staff snuck in a beautifully wrapped Christmas present onto my window-sill in between all the night-time chaos. On the gift-tag it read: “Merry Christmas Alexandra, Love From Ward A6”. Though up to the eyeballs on pain and nausea medication, I popped on my reindeer antlers this afternoon and posed for a photo with my single Christmas present, smile beaming thanks to how reassured and happy I was that those caring for us, and rushed off their feet, still tried their hardest to spread a bit of festive cheer. That, will remain a fond memory for many more years to come, I am sure.
So, if you are alone this Christmas, struggling, or feeling lost as to what the next few days now hold, where reality has so cruelly replaced expectation, and where family have been replaced by shadows, know that you are not forgotten and that 2021 is fast-approaching with a world-size hug to close a year-long distance. Change, in my eyes, is never forever. Sometimes we end up liking that change, other times we only learn from it. And sometimes, just sometimes, we might just lose things from it too. But, if you can appreciate what little things can shine through this Christmas, accepting that the small sacrifices this year do need to be made if we are to be safer and healthier longer-term, I urge you to cherish it with every moment. I am just one of many thousands without any family or at least normality this Christmas, but if you are lucky enough to have even just someone around you, hug them the tightest, with the knowledge that not everyone will have had the same. COVID won’t be for ever and Christmas will come around again, eventually. Yes, this Christmas will be different, but as with every harsh winter, it too will soon pass.
One of my nurses is painting my nails sparkly red tonight, as I attempt to dress to a ‘Rudolph the red-nosed Reindeer’ theme from my hospital. I have sourced a copy of the ward’s Christmas Day dinner menu, just for the memorabilia, even though it didn’t live up to those unrealistic ‘expectations’ in taste (it is hospital food after all). And I’ve hung a bit of lone gold tinsel on the headboard of my bed, plus an extra little wreath to hang with the medicine bottles on the drip-stand, grateful that I get to at least see a tiny piece of decoration before yet another season passes before my eyes. Making the best out of the worst situations via the smallest details can honestly go a very long way, and this gratitude is something we can all give and have this Christmas.
So, wherever you are, whatever circumstances you may find yourself in this year, stay positive, stay smiling, and know that, in a world where we’ve all shared the same heartbreaks through 2020, deep down we, alongside myself, are all wishing each other a very, merry little Christmas…
Christmas love, A x