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THE MOST MEMORABLE holiday I've ever experienced wasn't spent opening presents with family or feasting with friends. It wasn't something I spent weeks preparing for and looking forward to. Instead, it was spent caring for children who had no choice but to spend their Christmas holidays in a hospital bed-and who gave me the best holiday gift ever.
Working at a children's hospital in St. Louis as the new staff nurse, I had the last pick when it came to the holiday schedule. I normally didn't work the night shift, but this time I had to work the 12-hour night shift on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This was going to be the worst Christmas ever, I thought as I walked into the hospital on Christmas Eve.
The first patient on my assignment list was Demetrius, a charming 13-year-old with a history of spina bifida and diabetes, who'd just undergone a below-the-knee amputation. He was frequently admitted to our hospital and I knew him well. Unfortunately, although Demetrius had a large family, neither his mother nor any of his five brothers and sisters ever came to see him until he was discharged.
Demetrius and I had a good relationship. He could be quite demanding, but I figured he deserved as much attention as possible.
The first words out of his mouth when I walked into his room were, "You're finally here!! I'm so glad I get to spend Christmas with you this year, this is going to be great!!" Sadly, he knew he'd get more attention from me than his family. I didn't want him to know I hadn't been looking forward to working on the holiday, so I pretended to be just as excited and happy as he was. Besides, it did make me feel good to know that someone was happier because I had to work that night. Maybe I would make it through the shift after all.
Next up was Kaitlyn, a beautiful 9-year-old who'd been battling an aggressive form of leukemia for the past year. She'd just relapsed after undergoing a bone marrow transplant and her situation wasn't very hopeful. As soon as I entered her room and saw her parents-upset by the news and bleak outlook, yet determined to embrace what might be their last Christmas with their daughter-working on Christmas didn't seem like such a big deal after all.
I'd finished my patient rounds and was on my way to grab some dinner when the first admission of the night arrived from the ED: Gretchen, an 8-year-old with long dark hair. As she wheeled by on a stretcher, I thought it was odd that her parents weren't accompanying her. I soon learned why as the ED nurse gave me report.
Gretchen and her mother and brother had been on their way to a family Christmas dinner when their car was hit by a truck. Gretchen's mother was killed instantly and her brother was in critical condition in the ICU. Her father, who'd been in a separate car, was downstairs with her brother. Gretchen was lucky to have survived with only a few fractures, but her life was forever changed.
During the course of my shift, my attitude about working that night changed completely. I sat with Gretchen much of the time, hugging her and wiping away tears as she cried for her mother. I listened to Kaitlyn's parents as they questioned whether they should subject their daughter to another risky bone marrow transplant that offered only a slim chance of success. I took care of my other patients, and somehow in the midst all of this, managed to sneak in a few video games with Demetrius.
With only a few hours left in my shift, all my patients were asleep. The hospital had received toy donations for the children, so I decided to assume the role of Santa. I picked out gifts for each of my patients and placed them on their bedside tables to be found when they woke up. I'd known the previous day that Demetrius would be there, so I'd brought a gift for him-a warm fuzzy blanket with the logo of his favorite sports team.
Some of the patients on the unit were from underprivileged homes and not accustomed to waking up to presents on Christmas Day, Demetrius included. It wasn't long before the halls were filled with shrieks of delight and the sound of presents being ripped open.
I made my way into each patient's room. Kaitlyn was busy opening presents with her parents. They were still undecided on which path to take with her treatment but determined to set the decision-making process aside for now and enjoy Christmas morning as a family.
Gretchen's father had come up from the ICU to check on her. He looked absolutely exhausted after enduring a night worse than most of us could even imagine. I gave him a hug and expressed my sorrow over the loss of his wife. At least I could give him a good report about Gretchen: She was doing well physically; once her broken bones healed, she'd soon be up and running again. The emotional road ahead of her was going to be extremely difficult, but for now she was excited to show me the doll and a giant, soft teddy bear that "Santa" had brought her.
I walked into Demetrius' room next and found him sitting in bed, all wrapped up in his new blanket and grinning from ear to ear. He was saving the other presents to open throughout the day because, as he put it, "I've never had a Christmas like this and I want to make it last as long as possible." I chatted with him a bit, changed his dressing, and made him promise to play some video games with me when I returned for my next shift later that night.
My legs were feeling heavy from working a 12-hour shift as I walked out to my car, but my heart was light. That night, my patients had given me the best holiday gift I'd ever received-gratitude. They taught me to cherish the ones I love and to take nothing for granted. Spending a few minutes of your day making someone smile is the best investment you can make.
Fifteen years have passed since then, but not a holiday goes by that I don't replay that night in my mind. I often wonder what happened to Demetrius, Kaitlyn, and Gretchen, and wish I could thank them for the precious gift they gave me.
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