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Nursing is an honor, even on holidays

On Christmas Eve 1975, I was one of several nurses working the overnight shift on a medical floor in a large Philadelphia hospital. I was physically and emotionally exhausted after a year of multiple, significant changes -- graduation from college, getting married, moving to a new city and starting my nursing career.

The Christmas carols playing softly on the nursing station radio only added to my melancholy mood and the loneliness I felt being away from home at Christmas for the first time.

Since I was one of the newly hired nurses on the floor, I had been assigned the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift the entire holiday week. I was none too happy about it. And the colleagues working with me weren't too happy about working that night, either. So when we gathered at the desk to chart in the wee hours of the morning, it did not take long for us to start complaining and bemoaning our fate to be working on Christmas Eve.

Shamefully, our impromptu pity party would probably have continued on unabated, except there was a private-duty nurse on the floor that night. When she joined us at the desk, it took only a few minutes for her to tire of our whining. Her response forced me to reconsider my attitude toward working that night, and still echoes back to me more than 35 years later.

"Nurses have always worked on holidays. In fact, nurses have taken care of their patients, whenever and wherever needed, since before holidays even existed. All over the world tonight -- night after night, holiday or no holiday, without fanfare -- thousands upon thousands of nurses are taking care of their patients," she said.

"And I take my place proudly beside them."

Somehow this short sentence perfectly conveys the honor, dignity and privilege of being a nurse. I could feel clearly that night that I was part of something far greater than myself. I was, in my own small way, carrying on the legacy of the countless nurses before me. The complaints about working on the holiday suddenly seemed selfish and petty and immediately ceased.

It has been several decades since I have had to care for patients on Christmas Eve. As a nurse educator, I now focus on instilling the values of professional nursing to the students I am privileged to teach. I feel fortunate to still hear the echo of wisdom from this dedicated nurse I worked with so many years ago. Her words will always be a part of me.

As I prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ this Christmas Eve, I feel exceedingly blessed as I anticipate a day filled with excited grandchildren, a delicious holiday dinner and cherished times with loved ones.

But before I lie down to dream of the joy to come on Christmas Day, I will remember and say a prayer for all of my colleagues caring for patients this holiday season. I will also say a prayer for the countless other people willing to help wherever and whenever needed. Police officers, firefighters, airline employees, snowplow drivers -- the list is too long to name everyone. But all of you have my thanks and prayers for safety as you give of yourselves to help others.

As Tiny Tim said so well in "A Christmas Carol" -- "God bless us, every one."

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Linda Snell, of Clarence, is a registered nurse, nurse practitioner and associate dean, School of Health and Human Performance at the College at Brockport.

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