Hospitals for the holidays: Students and nurses help out over break


UPMC Presbyterian lights up decorations on its front lawn during the holiday season. (Photo by Kyleen Considine | Visual Editor)

By Sarah Connor and Joanna Li

While some people are putting a honey-glazed Christmas ham into the oven and cozying up with loved ones to watch “A Christmas Story,” Pitt student Trisha Klan starts her work day.

Instead of sipping hot cocoa and decorating a tree, the third-year student will celebrate Christmas while working in a hospital. Klan is a patient care technician at Jefferson Hospital in Jefferson Hills, which is about 13 miles from Oakland, and is no stranger to inconvenient holiday work schedules.

“I worked on Thanksgiving. It was an overnight so I worked from 11 p.m. the night before into 7 a.m. that morning,” she said. “I’m working Christmas too, from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.”

Klan has learned to make the most of her shifts. And after many 5 a.m. sessions taking patients’ vital signs over the holidays, she’s seen how people react to being in hospitals during the season.

“It’s especially interesting to work around this time, because even if it’s not an actual holiday you see how people are affected by the holidays,” she said. She said she has seen many more people come through the emergency room at this time of the year than in September or any other non-holiday month. The reasoning behind this phenomenon remains a bit of a mystery for Klan and her co-workers, but some of the Jefferson Hospital workers have theories.

“Some nurses say that for elderly patients especially, the family may be trying to get them into a nursing home, so they’ll bring in their relative and say ‘He has heart problems, he needs [to be] admitted’ so they have more time to plan the holiday festivities,” Klan said.

Some of her patients have a very different problem — patients who are alone for the holidays find the season particularly rough.

“Other people who may not have families at the holidays experience severe depression, so that’s when we get a lot of suicidal ideation and stuff like that,” she said.

Klan is required to sit with patients who have suicidal thoughts to make sure they do not harm themselves — something she said is extremely difficult. But Klan found an escape from focusing on the sadness of this situation.

“At first, it was really hard for me to care for these patients — especially at this time of the year when everyone is trying so hard to be cheerful — because it was such a sad situation,” she said. “But then I remember that at least they are here getting help. The reminder that they are not on their own gives me hope.”

Klan also said car accidents because of bad weather and drunk driving bring in a high amount of patients to the ER throughout the season.

Picking up a shift during Christmas her first year on the job, Bethany Peng, a registered nurse at Allegheny General Hospital, is anticipating accidents like these. Working an around-the-clock job, Peng is needed on the front line throughout the year. And although she’s never worked a Christmas, she feels that it will be similar to when she worked on Thanksgiving.

“This is my first job being a nurse, so I have no idea what to expect during the holiday,” Peng said. “But nursing is really unpredictable and you never know what the day is going to be like. It could be calm in the morning and crazy in the afternoon.”

Like Klan, Peng is looking for a way to cope with the gloomy atmosphere at the hospital during the holidays. Even though she is hoping for a more festive and joyful space during Christmas, Peng knows it will be quite the opposite.

“Most people want to go home for the holiday, so the only people left in the hospital are the ones that are super sick. They’re sad, too, because they can’t go home,” Peng said. “[Nurses] barely get to sit down and take a breath, and sometimes you don’t get to eat for the whole 12 to 13 hours.”

Madeline Borsos experienced this holiday rush early on in her career. The sophomore pre-med student has been a clinical research assistant and on-call research assistant at UPMC Presbyterian and UPMC Mercy for more than a year. As a native of the Pittsburgh area, Borsos has the opportunity to work full-time at local hospitals during her summer and winter breaks.

She works primarily in the ER with trauma patients and those who are acutely ill and to follow up with patients who are in the intensive care unit and operating room. Borsos and her co-workers consider their jobs demanding because of the requirements of overnight shifts and being called into work at any time.

Borsos said the hospitals are always decorated around this time of the year for those who are not fortunate enough to be home with their families for the holidays.

“Every unit in the hospitals has some sort of holiday decoration or Christmas tree on display to make it feel like a little more like home for those who are not lucky enough to leave,” she said.

Though upset that she has to work a major holiday, the festive decor encourages Peng to cheer up a bit. At Allegheny General, if a nurse works one year, they are able to spend the holiday at home the next year — alternating back and forth year to year. But for the moment, the best perk is getting the overtime holiday pay.

“I’m hoping for the holiday season to be more festive and joyful in the hospital, especially for Christmas,” Peng said. “If not, then at least I’ll get paid more.”