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At hospitals, Christmas is another work day


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 24, 2000

Hospitals don't shut down, not even on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The reason is obvious: Patients still need medical attention, no matter what the calendar says.

And because hospitals don't stop, the people who work inside them don't stop, either. So today and Monday, as you open presents, trudge off to church and enjoy a holiday meal, remember the staffs at Citrus Memorial and Seven Rivers Community hospitals.

They won't be the only people working, of course. Like firefighters, police officers, nursing home staffers and the like, hospital staffers will be there for anyone who needs them.

Helen Rotast, associate director of nursing at Citrus Memorial, must work Christmas Day. Rotast has been in nursing 26 years, so this will hardly be the first holiday, or Christmas, she has spent on the job. She and her husband plan to celebrate today. They have no young children at home.

Oddly enough, Rotast said holiday cheer can survive quite well in a hospital's hallways.

For example, if the patient census drops enough, Rotast can play Santa and give some staffers an unexpected gift: Christmas Day off.

Beyond that, Rotast said she has learned through the years that people in a hospital, patients and staff alike, seem to adopt a special warmth on Christmas. They instinctively engage in a mutual effort to cheer each other and make the best of less-than-ideal circumstances. "It just has a whole different feel" on Christmas, she said.

On this Christmas, Rotast's thoughts will be with her father, who will spend the holiday hospitalized in New Hampshire.

Greg Bare is a registered nurse at Seven Rivers. He works on 2 South, a "stepdown" unit for cardiac patients. Bare is scheduled to work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Christmas, which means he has delayed his holiday celebration until Thursday.

"I like being around people," Bare said."It's kind of a nice time, because our census is usually low and we don't have a lot of people in the hospital."

Santa Claus, fresh off his nightlong toy delivery route, plans to make rounds at Seven Rivers during the day.

Meanwhile, the dietary department will be preparing special meals.

"We just try to make it feel like they are at home and somebody is there to enjoy the holiday with them," Bare said.

Patti Miller, a registered nurse in Citrus Memorial's critical care unit, will work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Christmas Day. She pulls Christmas duty every other year at Citrus Memorial, where she has worked for 18 years.

In the past, when Miller's daughter was younger, working the early Christmas shift presented a logistical challenge. However, Miller and her husband persuaded Santa to visit early so the family could awaken at 4:30 a.m. and open gifts.

Miller's daughter is 13 now, so the pressure is off. "We do everything when I come home," Miller said. "It makes Christmas last a little longer."

Miller said hospital workers, like their counterparts in other lines of work, try to accommodate each other. For example, employees who don't have children at home often volunteer to work the early shift so parents don't have to rush in. Likewise, parents often will volunteer for early duty New Year's Day.

"It's just part of my job, like working every other weekend," Miller said. "I generally put on the Christmas earrings and wear a Santa hat and Santa socks and things like that, and try to make the patients feel a little more happy.

"The ones that are left there are generally pretty sick, and some of them don't have family," Miller continued.

Cleo Sawn, a pharmacy buyer, started working at Seven Rivers three months after it opened in 1977 and has been there since. She has worked her share of holidays, particularly when she toiled as a certified pharmacy technician.

Sawn won't be on duty this holiday season, but she recalls the juggling act she pulled off two years ago, when she worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Christmas Eve and then rushed home to prepare a ham dinner.

Sawn has four children and six grandchildren, and her home is the family gathering place for Christmas. Sawn had plenty of help, but also plenty of work to do.

"You have to be organized. You have to have the major part of it done before you go to work," Sawn said. "We may be eating at 10 o'clock, but we're still together."

So, how does it feel to be free and clear this year?

"It's so wonderful," Sawn said. "What a change. What a difference."

Then again, her promotion to pharmacy buyer has a downside: On holidays, she's still on call.

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