Post 53 Christmas Day in Hospital 50 Years Ago

For those of us who, as young doctors and nurses, lived in the hospital in the 60s and 70s, Christmas Day was a memorable experience thanks to the great efforts made by the staff to create a cheerful  atmosphere for those unfortunate enough to be ill and away from home at this special time.

On Christmas morning the hospital was visited by the local brass band.  Usually it was possible for all the musicians to squeeze on to each ward, but if not, the band played exuberantly in the corridors, adding to the festive occasion. With the ward doors thrown wide open, the sound of  old familiar carols floating in warmed the hearts of every patient.

Later, Father Christmas arrived with an enormous sack of presents on his back. He spoke easily and pleasantly with each of the patients. The Ward Sister accompanied him on his round, advising him on the most suitable present for each patient, generally a bottle of beer for the men or, if they were unable to take food by mouth, a gent’s handkerchief.  The ladies received perfumed soap or talcum powder. 

Usually, the next visitor, by contrast looking rather less at ease in the clinical environment than Father Christmas, was the Mayor wearing his formal chain of office and accompanied by the Lady Mayoress. She sometimes looked grumpy, as if she felt that visiting the sick on Christmas Day was beyond the call of duty, and that she would have preferred to be at home with her family. The mayor tended to speak rather formally with Sister in the office, and then briefly with one or two of the patients.  As often as not, he brought an official photographer with him, and a number of photographs were taken at a patient’s bedside which hinted at the real reason for his visit.

Each Ward Sister converted an empty side room into a ‘Hospitality Lounge’ and provided drinks and nibbles. Where the alcohol was stored for the rest of the year, or whether it was acquired specially for this occasion, was a complete mystery, but one table was laden with sherry, beer and soft drinks,  another with crisps, nuts, raisins and chocolates. Similarly, alcohol was available in other departments, including the x-ray and casualty departments, and many staff, including medical staff, took advantage – a far cry from hospital policy today where a strict ‘no alcohol’ rule is  enforced!

As lunch time approached, the consultant arrived usually accompanied by his wife, and sometimes with his children, especially if they were young. After a swift drink in the side ward, he (rarely she in those days) walked around the ward undertaking a ‘social’ rather than a medical ward round. On one occasion, I remember a consultant’s six year old son brought two of his Christmas presents with him. One was a clockwork car which apparently went disappointingly slowly on the carpet at home, but motored like a formula one racing machine on the polished linoleum of the ward floor, usually disappearing under patients’ beds or items of medical equipment.  In a flash the lad went after it, knocking over drip stands and commodes on the way.  Eventually, to prevent further damage, I took him to the far end of the ward where there were some empty beds. I set up two chairs as goal posts and he took penalty kicks at me with the football which was the second of his presents!

At 12 noon the Christmas turkey arrived, thanks to the efforts of the kitchen staff, who deserved  credit for producing a hot roasted turkey for every ward in the hospital, together with all the traditional trimmings. The turkey was carved by the consultant, sometimes with a blade borrowed from the operating theatre, and served to the patients by his wife and family. A few patients were able to sit at the table in the middle of the ward, but most were served in their beds.

With the nurses wearing tinsel around their hats, with decorative trimmings on their crisp, white, cotton aprons, and with carols playing on the tape recorder in the background, every effort was made to make the Christmas meal as pleasant as possible for the patients.

Then the table in the centre of the ward was cleared, the ambulant patients retired to their beds to listen to the Queen’s speech, the consultant and his wife went home leaving the nursing staff and junior doctors to sit down to enjoy their own Christmas lunch in the side room.

Medical treatments have improved greatly over the years, but something has been lost over the years, and it is sad that these wonderful traditions no longer form a part of modern hospital life.

Quotation for the Day

Heal the world; let them know it’s Christmas time again.

                                                                               Bob Gelfof and Midge Ure

If you enjoyed this short story, you will also enjoy reading ‘All in a Doctor’s Day’ by Peter SykesA collection of  short stories all with a medical flavour.

Some of the stories will make you smile, some will bring tears to your eyes and others have a surprising twist in the tail. 

Available from Amazon as paperback or Kindle


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