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Giving Thanks at the County Hospital

Marcia Ehinger, MD, a native Californian, is a retired pediatrician and genetic specialist. She is the California Writers Club Sacramento Branch newsletter content editor.

What can lift your spirits when you are assigned to work on a holiday enjoyed by the whole country? Thanksgiving is a time for family, food, and football. As kids, we'd sing along with Mom as we drove "Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother's house..." even though the rivers in Los Angeles County are concrete viaducts and the only horsepower was our Ford station wagon.

After years away at school, I was longing for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner showcasing a huge roast turkey with crunchy crackling golden brown skin at the head of the table. My grandmother would ask if her stuffing had enough fresh sage, and if the candied yams should have marshmallows on top. For salad, she'd pick leafy lettuces and sun-ripened tomatoes from her garden. The gravy would be purposefully lumpy with extra giblets for Aunt Sally, and the pumpkin pie served with lots of freshly whipped cream. Early afternoon dinner would be followed by supper leftovers. Between feasts, we'd lounge and watch football on television.

I was late for our regular meeting of pediatric residents.

"We drew names from a hat, and you get to work on Thanksgiving."

I was already working in "newborn," a notorious "killer rotation". The county hospital delivered more babies than anywhere else in the U.S.–sixty a day. There was a large newborn intensive care unit (NICU), and many rooms of well babies (called the "Normal Nursery"). A pediatric intern and I would be on call for 24 hours straight, covering the nurseries and six delivery rooms. Since it was a holiday, we would also draw any blood needed for laboratory tests. We would be working hard and forgotten while our friends and families enjoyed the day.

After a busy Thanksgiving morning, I was hungry and hoping for a break. We seldom had time for an actual meal in the dining room, and I was already having a waking nightmare where my senses were being assaulted by a fake Thanksgiving dinner: visions of chopped turkey parts reconstructed into a roll, and the taste of instant mashed potatoes and something brown designated "gravy".

"Hey, Doc."

It was nearly noon. I cringed and waited to hear the next problem that needed solving.

"They want you in the dining room. Right now."





I found the intern and went down to the basement. Mr. Andrews, the head of Dietary Services, gave his staff the day off, and came in to cook — just for us. He had roasted a real turkey and made all the "fixins" from scratch: dressing, real mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, bread, greens, cranberry sauce. His big smile was contagious. We felt so special.

After a glorious meal, we went back to work: checking on fragile newborns, running to the delivery rooms, washing hands — over and over. About eight o'clock, I looked up and thought I was hallucinating. My parents, my brother Richard, and my 90-year-old grandfather were just inside the entrance of the NICU, dressed in gowns. My mother was arranging foil-covered serving dishes on the counter.

"We knew you were missing Thanksgiving dinner, so we brought you some leftovers."

I was amazed. More delicious food, but this time it included family. We chatted and ate, and thanked them profusely for thinking of us.

Sometime after midnight, we had a chance to lie down and close our eyes. A few minutes later, the phone rang.

"I thought things were quiet in labor and delivery," the intern yawned.

"It's the normal nursery. They need someone up there right away." He didn't hear me.

When I got to the sixth floor, I wasn't really paying attention to the tables laden with food, or that nearly all the night workers seemed to be there in one room.

"What's happening?"

The woman in charge moved to the side and gestured to a table covered with pies.

"We're having a contest. Sweet potato or pumpkin pie — which is better? Which pie tastes best?"

"You want me to judge a pie-tasting contest? Now?"

"Yes. Of course. It's Thanksgiving."

All of them were delicious. Sweet potato won -- Margie Robinson's pie. Steve missed it. They insisted that I bring him a piece.

On the way downstairs I gave thanks for a job where I worked with so many caring people, for the special surprises that had come our way, and for our families and friends, especially those who remember us when it really matters.

~ Marcia Ehinger




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