November 6th, 2018

Making the Most of the Holidays as a Resident

Ellen Poulose Redger, MD

Ellen Poulose Redger, MD, is a Chief Resident at Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook, NY

It’s that time of the year again — Halloween has passed (and with it, the best excuse for an adult to dress up in costume), and the winter holidays are just around the corner. I was in a store on November 1st, and Christmas decorations were being put up.  Already.  Whether or not you happen to celebrate a particular holiday, this time of the year is associated with friends and family and togetherness. For many residents, though, it might be the first time that they spend many (if not all) of the holidays away from family and friends they grew up with. We all make new friends (and some would say, family) in residency and beyond, but there is also something about being home for the holidays.

roasted turkey dinnerAs a kid, I lived within 45 minutes of all four of my grandparents and was lucky enough to have them all around until 2010. Many Thanksgivings were spent at my dad’s parents’ house, where aunts and uncles and family friends and really, anyone, came to have an American Thanksgiving and then a second round of Indian food. It was a tradition that started in the 1970s when my grandparents, immigrants to the U.S., wanted their children to grow up with a true “American” Thanksgiving — turkey and trimmings, pies, and enough food for four times as many people as were actually in attendance. Christmas for us was not as stereotypical. Both of my parents are physicians, so Christmas happened sometime around the 25th of December, whenever they could both be off and awake at the same time, and the focus was not on gifts (although we did receive them). The focus for Christmas was being together.

Holiday celebrations during residency

Fast forward to residency, when my husband and I moved literally halfway across the country (Kansas to New York). Our first year in NY, I worked Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day — somehow, I managed to have actual Christmas Day off. [I’m sure he worked at least one of those, too, but while the urology service slims down for the holidays, the various medical services I’ve been on over the years do not.] My second and third years weren’t quite as bad, but in a two-physician household, you can bet that on most holidays, at least one of us is working. That’s how it goes — patients will always be sick and in the hospital — it’s part of being a physician.

Being away from our families during the holidays isn’t fun or easy, but my husband and I have learned to make it work. We participate in Friendsgiving (coincidentally the afternoon/evening after the urology in-service exam), our co-residents have organized “Secret Santa” gift exchanges, and we try to have a Christmas meal with members of our work family. We’ve even experienced our first Hanukkah, where I made very non-kosher lasagna.

“Holidays for the strays”

About 10 years ago, my parents started hosting “holidays for the strays.” This was an open invitation to their colleagues and residents to come over on Thanksgiving or Christmas or some random day near to the holidays to share a meal and spend time together. Over the years, this has morphed from a last minute “oh, no, these residents are going to be all alone on Christmas” to a fully planned, official headcount, catering-to-various-dietary-restrictions event that everyone looks forward to each year. [In fact, one of the Jewish attendings had his first Christmas dinner last year!]

When the “stray holidays” first started, my siblings and I understood that it was about bringing people together, but now, as a (chief) resident, I see how it is so much more than that. Holidays for the strays is a way to make sure that residents and faculty know they belong to a bigger family than the one they grew up with — they belong to the family of medical professionals where someone must work 24/7/365 to take care of others. Holidays for the strays are a way to make sure no one is sitting at home with leftovers or takeout on a day when everyone else is crowded around a table with family and friends. It is a way to get to know your colleagues outside of the hierarchy of the hospital or clinic. And most importantly, it is a way to ensure that even for those of us who work most (if not all) holidays, there’s still a table full of family and friends waiting to squeeze you in.

This year, as I made one of the residency class schedules, I notated where various holidays fell (including major Jewish and Muslim holidays) and tried to give the appropriate people days off on the appropriate holidays when it was possible.  It was my way to try to ensure that the residents had a chance to pull a chair up to a table and spend time with those they love.

Maybe I can’t have you all over for my Christmas tenderloin, or bake up a bunch of pies for everyone for Thanksgiving, or share my famous French toast with you for New Year’s brunch, but I can encourage everyone to do something together, even for a few hours on just one of the holidays. You can bet that once we finally move on from living in apartments, we’ll be having our own “holidays for the strays.” And, for any of my residents reading this, I’ll see you on Thanksgiving — at the hospital.

NEJM Resident 360

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