January 3, 2019
For me, the holiday season starts with Thanksgiving and ends with New Year’s Day. For those who are always out to look for something to celebrate, the season can start as early as Halloween and go all the way to Super Bowl Sunday! For most of us (me included), this stretch of two to three months in the dark winter of Pacific Northwest is met with cheers and excitement. For others, and I presume this is not an insignificant minority, the holidays are met with dread and apprehension. While I am writing a generally positive message about my holiday experience, I recognize that this is a difficult times for many and I want to be sensitive to their realities. I can see the anxieties in the faces of many of my patients throughout this season and I am keeping them in my thoughts as I am writing this.
We had a non-traditional Thanksgiving this year. We went to some dear friends’ home and had a Vietnamese-themed cookout. Funny thing was that none of the twenty or so guests was remotely Vietnamese. I made curried noodles with tofu and it was a hit. While I missed the turkey and sweet potato, we all had a good time and gratitude for the bounty and friendships that we shared. Sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas were three work-related parties and couple of other social gatherings. Thank God I started an intermittent fasting program before the holidays. Otherwise, with all the food and the sweets, this would have been the perfect time to begin to curb the weight gain.
The highlight for this Christmas vacation was uninterrupted time with each of my children – digging dinosaurs bone with Theo at the Burke museum, watching The Nutcracker with Elise at Pacific Northwest Ballet and watching “Bourne Ultimatum” with my eldest daughter Claire. As a family, we had a little get away to Cle Elum where it was covered with a blanket of fresh show. Snowball fights, ice skating and sledding down a driving range were novel and thrilling for them. It was such a joy to see the excitement on their faces. To top it off, we roasted marshmallow in an open fire and made gluey S’mores each night.
On Christmas morning, we opened the huge pile of presents under our tree. I received three travel mugs, a reflection of my coffee addiction; a bath robe from my wife and many bars of chocolate, yet another healthy addiction. I then cooked a big brunch at our homes for two other families and before the food could actually settle in my stomach, we were off to another friends’ home for a sumptuous Christmas dinner.
All the food, sweets, presents, socializing and travelling around Christmas can undoubtedly feel a little bit too much. While I enjoy these aspects of Christmas, I also enjoy being on-call during the holiday season. This is a tradition I started since medical school and throughout internship, residency and fellowship. I was single throughout my training and I didn’t mind taking calls or shifts during the holidays so my compatriots with families can enjoy this special time with their children. I found that patients are particularly appreciative when I come in just to see them at this time of the year. So, this year is no different. I took call on December 25 and again on 28,29 and 30. I had a steady stream of phone consultations from the emergency room and I had to go to the hospital to see a patient on Christmas day and to see a patient in my office over the weekend. In both cases, life has not been easy on them and they have little in terms of resources or insurance. Yet, they have real eye problems and I have the gifts that only a few can offer. This to me is the true meaning of Christmas – gifting of oneself rather than materials. And when I reflect on that principle, it never feels like a burden to me when I had to work over the holidays.
I had the feel-good vibes when I volunteered at the Seattle/King County Free Clinic back in September. Sponsored by the Seattle Center Foundation, the clinic offered full range of free dental, vision and medical care to underserviced and vulnerable populations in our region. Over the four-day period, close to 18,000 volunteers participated to provide care to 4000 people. Thirty-one percent of those seen were unemployed and forty-eight percent did not have any form of health insurance. The cost of the free care provided approximated to 3.5 million dollars. It was a truly amazing accomplishment.
I arrived at Seattle Center at 6:45 in the morning to pick up my badge. After winding through multiple stairs and hallways within Key arena, I found the vision department where there were fifteen exam lanes, staffed by ophthalmologists like myself and optometrists. Our team had a huddle at 7:00 and by 7:30, the first wave of patients arrived. By 5:30pm, I myself must have seen close to sixty patients that day. While most patients had simple refractive problems that can be corrected by glasses, there were cases of unrecognized glaucoma, cataracts that have gone a bit too far and consequences of past ocular trauma that were never addressed. Some of these more complex cases were referred out for further work-up and management but most patients were just appreciative to have someone looked at their eyes and provide an explanation to their problems. While the wait was long and we worked pretty much non-stop, I noticed that both providers and patients were enjoying themselves. That’s the power of giving oneself. While the work was pretty much the same, the small shift in perspective made all the difference. All in all, 1221 patients received eye care. 1150 pairs of glasses were fitted and a total of $633,000 worth of vision care was provided. These numbers were astounding but the positive spirits that were generated were immeasurable.
The deep dark winter in the Pacific Northwest is not easy to bear. It is hard sometimes to muster the energy to go out and revel in the holiday cheers amidst the cold and rain. We can, however, tamper the Grinch in each of us by giving a piece of ourselves. The magic of Christmas lies not in gifts or chocolates but in kindness and service to humankind. It is for this reason that I plan to continue to take calls for patients during the holidays and throughout the rest of the year. Happy New Year.