The best Christmas gift you can give: Wear a mask, avoid other covid-19 risks

By Ersilia M. DeFilippis,

Dec. 25 is my favorite day of every year. Since the beginning of my medical training, I have spent every Christmas with my family and, fortunately, never within the walls of a hospital. And while I still retain my uncontained excitement for the holiday I hold sacred, Christmas this year is tainted by feelings of fear and disappointment.

As a doctor in New York, I have worked in various intensive care units with patients with covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, beginning in March during the height of the pandemic. We watched people die despite our best efforts, in isolation, unable to see their families. And today, ICUs all over the country are flooded with sick patients with covid-19, hospitals are short on staff and cases are only continuing to rise.

Yet, I still see people maskless on the subway or on crowded streets. Some are in denial, choosing to pretend that everything is normal. Others, perhaps, believe that they are invincible, but the virus does not discriminate.

And I recognize that we are tired. This year has been physically and emotionally exhausting for everyone, health-care providers in particular. We all are craving quality time with family and friends; we are craving something to rejoice and celebrate. Many of my colleagues have not seen their families in months. We have been deprived of so much interpersonal connection and human touch, hiding behind goggles, face shields, N95 masks and surgical masks. For many of us, those relationships and connections to our patients are the best part of working in health care.

But I’m also scared. I’m scared to expose my parents, my grandmother, or my fiance to the virus. I’m scared on behalf of the families of my future patients with covid-19. I’m scared of what’s going to happen during these next few months if people gather with their extended families for the holidays.

The spirit of Christmas is one that celebrates joy, love, compassion, generosity, kindness and sacrifice. Of course, we aim to demonstrate these virtues all year long, but the holiday season is an important reminder to us that we can be better. We must not falter.

This holiday season, I think about my father, an internist, dropping off a pulse oximeter outside the door of one of his older patients with suspected coronavirus infection during the height of the pandemic.

I thank the nurse practitioner whom I first met when we were redeployed to a newly constructed covid ICU who showed me how to care for the skin breakdown on my nose from the continuous wearing of N95 respirators.

I remember the doctors and other medical staff who traveled from Georgia, Montana, California and other places to help support us in the surge in New York.

At the same time, I reminisce about my long-standing patient with heart failure who never left her house and did everything right. She took all of her medications and spoke to me on the phone for her appointments. But despite her best efforts, she died in the emergency room of covid-19.

I reflect on the doctors, nurses and other health-care workers of all ages and backgrounds across the country who died of covid-19 while fighting on the front lines.

I recall the months I spent away from my fiance, both of us practicing medicine in two different states, trying our best to keep ourselves and our patients safe.

I think about the families who were devastated by covid-19, losing multiple family members and being unable to say goodbye because of visitation policies. I think about all of the empty seats at dinner tables, not just at the holidays but every night.

So although we are approaching the end of a long year, we must be vigilant. We may have to show our love for each other in different and unique ways this year.

One of the best ways we can show compassion and generosity is by keeping one another safe. Indoor holiday gatherings are high risk for spread.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its recommendations regarding the holidays and covid-19, emphasizing the often underestimated role that small indoor family gatherings can have in spreading the virus. This is particularly risky when guests are drinking and eating without masks. Therefore, having a small dinner with immediate family (those who live in your household) is best and a small price to pay for the greater good.

So while our Christmas dinner will be much smaller this year, I am grateful that my loved ones are healthy.

Staying home and staying away may be the most powerful displays of love and Christmas spirit we have. Be generous. Be kind.

Wear a mask.

Ersilia M. DeFilippis is a cardiology fellow at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York.

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