Long Reads

An ICU nurse reveals the one thing we should all remember this Christmas

Louise, 27, is an intensive care nurse who lives and works in London. Here, she tells Stylist what it’s like working in the ward at Christmas – and shares the powerful message we should all remember on the day, and beyond. 

This will be my fourth Christmas working in six years as a nurse, and my third Christmas working in ICU. I’m doing 12 and a half hours on both Christmas day and Boxing day, working from 7.30am to 8pm. My colleagues and I usually share the Christmas and New Year shifts, meaning you only have to work one each year, and last year I was on duty for New Year.

There’s no public transport on Christmas day, so a typical Christmas shift for me starts with a taxi ride to work, which feels very fancy. When I arrive at the hospital I’ll have a handover with the nurse who did the night shift, and hear all about the patient I’ll be caring for. We only have one patient per nurse in ICU, unless we are very short staffed and have to care for two patients. 

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A lot of our patients are sedated or unconscious in ICU, and they’re allowed visitors at any time of the day because they are so unwell. But a lot of the time people struggle to get into the hospital on Christmas day, and one year my patient’s family couldn’t get there because they were relying on public transport. The patient was unconscious so didn’t know that, but obviously it’s a big shame. You just have to try and carry on as usual and make sure that they’re comfortable.     

nurse and patient
NHS nurse: "The patient hasn’t chosen to be there, and probably wants to be there much less than we do."

One Christmas the patient I was looking after was awake, but she didn’t have any family to come and visit her. She wasn’t in contact with any of her family, and she didn’t have any friends. It was a sad situation but I wanted to make sure she had a nice day, so I tried to be as cheerful as I could. The hospital has a lovely tradition of giving stockings stuffed with presents to the patients, so we opened those together and she loved the toiletries and bits she received. 

Everyone who has a patient tries to make it special for them because they know that the patient hasn’t chosen to be there, and probably wants to be there much less than we do.

There are so many people working in a hospital on Christmas day – the porter, the lab staff, the pharmacy department, physios, ward doctors and so many other staff. There are more staff working than people realise, and while nurses do get a lot of recognition in the NHS, I want people to keep in mind all the other staff who are working.

The NHS carries on functioning as it normally would on Christmas day – we’re all still there, and people do get sick at Christmas. My message to people would be to be careful not to abuse the service, and to make sure you’re accessing the right support rather than just A&E. People sometimes attend A&E or call for ambulances when they should be accessing less acute services such as their GP, pharmacy, or urgent care centres, and it adds pressure to the service and staff. 

christmas at hospital
NHS nurse: "People tend to do something festive with their uniform – this year I’m going to wear a headband with tinsel on."

The NHS is really multicultural, and I work with colleagues and patients from all around the world. So people treat Christmas differently, and of course some people don’t celebrate Christmas but still join in the festive spirit. But on the day, most people bring in food and homemade meals and we have a nice ‘free for all’ in the staff room, which is always really lovely. Then people tend to do something festive with their uniform – this year I’m going to wear a headband with tinsel on.

Our hospital canteen also does a free Christmas meal for all the staff, which is a proper roast dinner even though it’s in polystyrene! There’s also a Christmas pudding for everyone so we usually sit together and have our meals, which is nice. 

One year, I even invited four of the other nurses for a big festive sleepover in my flat on Christmas Eve, and we all got a taxi to the hospital together in the morning. We did a little Secret Santa between the five of us and watched a Christmas film before going to bed. They weren’t people that I knew well, but we were all in the same boat and away from our family at Christmas so I thought it would be nice for us to be together. After all, it’s a bit sad going to bed on your own on Christmas Eve.

Apart from that, working on Christmas day is just like working any other day – it just feels like a nice weekend shift when people are more cheerful. I’m really lucky that my family live close to London, because it means I get to see them around Christmas, too. The travel disruption and occasional strikes mean that some colleagues find it really difficult to see their family at Christmas, especially if they live abroad, so some colleagues don’t get to see their loved ones at all over Christmas. But this year I’ll be at home the weekend before Christmas so I’ll get to see all of my family then, and I’ll see my fiancé’s family after Christmas, which I’m looking forward to.

My favourite thing about being a nurse is definitely getting to meet so many different people, and seeing all the different walks of life that people come from.

I’ve learned a lot about the world from meeting other people, and it’s been a privilege to care for them. A lot of the time, nursing is seen as a very difficult job, but I feel very lucky to do it. You immediately get thrown into people’s lives and they’re very trusting of you. I think I take that for granted sometimes – it’s a big responsibility. In a really nice way these people have faith in you to help them get better or to help them in any way you can.

In ICU, several patients die every week and this is no different over Christmas, which feels especially difficult for families and staff. I want people to remember that life can change so suddenly, so they should make the most of the time that they have with their loved ones. And perhaps for many people Christmas is the only time of year that they spend together with all the people closest to them, so don’t forget to appreciate it as much as you can, while you can.     

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Interview told to Sarah Biddlecombe

Images: Getty

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