Christmas spirit comes to the hospital

Decorations, music and visitors help cheer patients


Anita Pandey can't see the Christmas tree in the hallway outside her hospital room - but she likes knowing it is there. Her 2-year-old daughter, Sarika Pandey Kapadia, keeps taking ornaments off the lower branches to bring to her mother, who is pregnant and has been on bed rest since the end of last month.

Pandey, who lives in Columbia, says she will not mind too much spending Christmas at Howard County General Hospital, which has taken a number of steps to brighten the spirits of patients who must spend the holidays away from home and in a setting that others might find depressing.

"I really feel safe being here," said Pandy, a linguistics and writing professor at Morgan State University, who says she is not Christian but celebrates Christmas. "Everyone's looking out for you."

Hospitals don't shut down for the holidays.

Sharon Sopp, a hospital spokeswoman, says average Christmas Day patient population during the past few years has been 118, compared with a daily average of 148 patients between July 1, 2004, and June 30.

Some patients, such as Pandey, are in the hospital during the holidays because of a continuing medical condition. Others are there because of an emergency. And a few schedule elective surgery during the holidays because they can take time from work.

But being hospitalized during the holidays does not have to mean a lack of holiday spirit. In fact, the hospital holds so many holiday-themed activities - including a visiting Santa, carolers, a handbell choir, a harpist, toy drop-offs and parties for employees - that it might be one of the merriest places in town.

Judy Brown, senior vice president of patient care services, said mental health evaluations are part of the overall admissions process. Based on her 22 years of experience at the hospital, she said, she does not believe patients are more depressed during the holidays than at other times.

"It's inconvenient, and it disrupts their holidays plans," she said, but most families will have their dinners at home, then visit the ailing relative for the rest of the day.

Doctors send patients home before the holidays when possible, Brown said, but "if you're sick enough, it's where you want to be."

Holiday activities at the hospital begin right after Thanksgiving, when notices are sent to all departments about the door-decorating contest. The vascular lab (the winner this year) is festooned with Santa in the guise of a Ravens player, and the door to the neonatal intensive care unit has a snowman decorated with tiny pictures of the infants within. On Christmas Day, the babies are given Santa caps.

Decorated trees, like the one outside the postpartum wing where Pandey is staying (even though she is antepartum, meaning she has not had her baby), appear everywhere. Doctors and nurses wear holiday-themed scrubs, decorated with candy canes, reindeer and the like. "Everyone seems happy," Pandey said.

A holiday open house is held for staff members, and anyone working Christmas Day gets a free meal. When employees are happy, said Barbara Swann, director of Volunteer Services and chairwoman of the Employee Activities Committee, "that spills over to the patient care, and visitors."

And then there's Fred Muela, aka Santa.

Muela, 59, who lives in Laurel, has been going to elementary schools and other venues as Santa Claus for about six years, he said, but this year was his first at Howard County General. He attended the staff holiday party and dropped by the emergency room, he said.

"That was my highlight," he said. He didn't ask anybody why they were there, he just walked around, spreading cheer. "The first lady I saw had a little baby who might have been 2 months old," he said. "I just told her how pretty her baby was and told her I hoped she had a nice Christmas."

Muela said he likes visiting the hospital because he remembers from recent experience how a volunteer can improve a patient's mood.

"I was heavily sedated because I was just getting ready to go in for my open-heart surgery, and [a volunteer] comes up beside me and he had a hand puppet," Muela recalled. "I thought that was really neat."

Kathrine Fleshman, a hospital volunteer who brings gifts to the patients over the holidays, also knows from experience what it's like to miss out on holiday traditions. Four years ago, she said, she was hospitalized for five weeks with pneumonia.

"The last thing I remember was wrapping gifts," said Fleshman, 58, who lives in Woodbine. "That's the last thing I knew for two weeks."

"I can guarantee you they need extra cheering up," she said of patients who are in the hospital over the holidays. "I found when I was in the hospital [that] the nurses do a great job and your family comes as much as they can, but there are a lot of times when you're there by yourself, when you need someone to talk to, you need someone to get you a drink of water, any little thing."

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