Life and death in the ER
I enjoy the ultimate party that is New Year's eve as much as anyone. I remember asking around what people are doing and planning the chronology of bars and parties that I'd be at from the stroke of midnight until seven in the morning. But lately it's been a little different for me.
I've been on duty in the Emergency Room (ER) on New Year's eve for most if not every one of the past 7 years. I've never really felt cheated or been sad about it though.
In fact, it may sound weird, but I've actually always looked forward to it.
It is not a morbid attraction to blown-up hands that has me pulling on my scrubs while everyone else struts their suits and gowns. What draws me in is the realization that my job is important enough that it can't be put on hold for a minute, even on the most sacred of holidays.
While most other jobs can go on skeletal staffing, close early and open late, or just shut down completely, we at the ER must be business as usual, or even more prepared.
People always think of the ER on New Year's eve to be a bloody mess. At least this is the part that gets shown to us on TV. But what is often overlooked is the reality that the incidence of many other emergencies also peaks at this time.
The smoke from the fireworks triggers asthma attacks and causes other respiratory problems. The feasting and drinking that began 2 weeks ago results in a surge in digestive system malfunctions. The toll of our 2-week-long, all-out, Christmas-to-New-Year celebration pushes people's bodies beyond their breaking point.
We've been waking up at dawn for Simbang Gabi, braving the crowds in the malls and on the road to take around our balikbayan relatives, constantly stuffing rich foods down our mouths, and capping each day drinking ourselves into oblivion at one Christmas party or another, only to repeat that cycle the next day. And even if our body is crying out for reprieve, we must push it this one last day of the year and late into the night, until the sun rises on the year to come.
So aside from the severed limbs, the ER on New Year's eve is full of heart attacks, strokes, and gasping for breath. We may watch people wailing the loss of their fingers on the evening news and think that they never learn and they brought this on themselves. But behind the cameras are families mourning the not-as-newsworthy loss of their father to a heart attack, the coma of their grandmother who suffered a stroke, or cries of a child struck by a drunk driver.
And there are those for whom the holiday season only magnified their loneliness, who chose to end their own lives.
So many factors come together to make this one night explosive. Fatigue, the pressure of family and friends, crowding, drinking, reckless abandon, and the fact that there is nowhere else to go, all make one more likely to end up in the ER on New Year's eve than on any random night.
So beyond exploded body parts, I think of New Year's Eve duty as the epitome of a job that says that there will be someone who will keep watch that you can turn to when you need help and everyone else is busy with their own important affairs.
It may surprise you to know, after all that I have described, that the mood in the ER on New Year's eve is almost never morbid or depressing. There is a fellowship among those who are called to this task. We take these things in stride and are determined, despite the agony around us, to partake of the spirit of the holiday.
We also take time to share memories and lessons from the year that passed, and hopes and dreams for the year ahead. We bring food that will still be good even if it has to sit for a couple of hours.
We toast with bubbly soda and juice. We greet each other, not at the stroke of midnight or any other precise moment, but at 2:24 AM, or whatever random time we can look up from our work and breathe.
We find a moment to call the loved ones that we can't be with and are grateful that, given our line of work, we did not end up seeing any of them this night.
Though I don't feel the need to correct anyone who offers me sympathy for being on duty on New Year's Eve, I always think to myself that there is no greater honor. And this is an honor I share and celebrate with those that will stand with me.
So without a pang of regret in my heart, I wish you a happy New Year's Eve celebration. I pray that you all stay safe and well. But if it goes a different way for you tonight, I want you to know there will be someone to turn to for help. And to be able to say that is the fulfillment of my New Year's celebration. - Rappler.com
Daniel M. Luchangco, M.D. is an emergency medicine consultant practicing in Makati Medical Center, UERM Medical Center, and Mandaluyong City Medical Center. He will be at work this New Year's eve.