On Christmas, raise your glasses to the working classes

South Queensferry Coastguard James McNeil. Picture: Neil Hanna
South Queensferry Coastguard James McNeil. Picture: Neil Hanna
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AH, Christmas Day. ‘Tis when the city practically grinds to a halt and everyone stays at home to eat, drink and be merry with family and loved ones.

Well, not quite everyone. For while the majority have Christmas Day off, there’s a small, but vital, minority who drag themselves from a warm bed when the alarm clock rings. Or they’re on call in case of emergencies. Or they volunteer to work, so that others can have a Christmas to remember. So while you’re relaxing at home, whether that means excitedly opening presents, tucking into turkey dinners, or kicking back with the TV remote to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special, make a toast to those who are hard at work. Here, Gary Flockhart meets some of the unsung angels keeping the city running tomorrow

Caroline Barker.

Caroline Barker.

If the pager goes off, then your dinner goes in the oven until you come back

For coastguard Jamie McNeil, having to work on Christmas Day is just one of those things. One of those things, however, just happens to be rescuing people in distress while everyone else is lying on the couch stuffed full of Christmas pudding.

“Since I’ve been on the team, I think I’ve been called out once on Christmas Day. We were assisting people who were stranded on Cramond Island,” he says.

“They get up in the morning, have a good bit to eat, go for a walk as it’s a nice day, build up an appetite. They’re not mindful of the (tidal) times, so they miss the tide, and we get the shout to go down and assist them off.”

Andrew Watson,  NHS Lothian.

Andrew Watson, NHS Lothian.

Having been a coastguard for around seven years, the 49-year-old says you just have to treat Christmas Day like any other working day. Even if you have friends and family round for dinner.

“The pager’s there – if it goes, it goes, and you just have to fit your life around that, if that’s what you want to do. It’s a case of sitting down for a meal mid-afternoon, and if the pager goes off, then your dinner goes in the oven until you come back.”

He adds: “It can be difficult if you have loads of friends and family round. Most people are very supportive of it because it’s a good thing that’s getting done – they’re quite happy about it. It can make somebody’s day a lot better, put it that way. I’ve got four kids who are all past the Santa Claus age, so it’s not a problem.”

It’s a privilege to be able to offer comfort

Sarah Wright, Edinburgh Zoo.

Sarah Wright, Edinburgh Zoo.

Christmas can be a lonely time for many. And none more lonely than having to spend Christmas Day in a hospital ward. Nurse Caroline Barker comes from a family of doctors, so while her relatives are understanding of her having to work on Christmas Day, for her it’s a chance to make sure her patients at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary can enjoy the day as much as possible.

“Being in hospital at any time is difficult for patients and their families, and I am sure that they feel it all the more at this time, so it is a privilege to be able to offer comfort to patients and families who are facing illness and uncertainty,” she says.

“A long-held tradition in our ward is to dress the consultants up, to hand out presents to the patients. The consultants are always a little fearful about the costume choice of the nurse in charge and it always remains a closely guarded secret but they are always good sports in the end. Fortunately, the mankini had sold out this year.”

Having worked as a nurse for more than 20 years, Caroline maintains working on Christmas Day is part and parcel (no pun intended) of the job.

“You don’t go into nursing without knowing you will have to take your turn to work some of these special days,” says Caroline, who works at the Royal Infirmary.

“I have worked many Christmas days, both day shifts and night shifts over the years. Everyone mucks in together and there is always great camaraderie among the team. My husband says Christmas isn’t just one day, it’s about the whole festive season and spending time with family and friends. We’ll just celebrate on Boxing Day instead.”

She adds: “The main treat for working on Christmas Day is the food. Everyone contributes something and at some point in the shift we all manage to sit down to a proper Christmas dinner and a glass of Shloer. We try to make sure the staff get a longer break to enjoy the feast.”

Patients are frustrated in hospital

Christmas Day can often place many already short-staffed organisations under greater pressure. In NHS Lothian’s case, there’s only one with Andrew Watson’s expertise available. Stressed much?

“There’s only one consultant psychiatrist working on Christmas Day, and we have to cover all of Edinburgh East and Midlothian for everyone aged between 16 and 65. It means more responsibility – usually, you’re working in your one little area – but it’s much broader on Christmas Day,” he says. “We have a team of junior doctors and nurses who do assessments, A&E, and see people in their homes. You can see nurses up to twice a day or doctors come to your home. And that’s all covered by me on Christmas day.”

He adds: “We don’t have enough beds, so I’m often phoning around Fife, West Lothian, Falkirk and Dundee for beds for our patients. That takes up more of my time on Christmas Day than anything else.”

Another challenging problem, says Andrew, is having to inform patients they can’t leave the hospital to spend the day with their families. “One of the most difficult assessments on Christmas Eve is saying to someone ‘I don’t think you can go home’ and then being accused of ruining Christmas day for people – that can be pretty challenging. But we are flexible enough so people can get out for an afternoon. People are frustrated being in hospital.

“However,” says Watson, “because the Royal Ed is in Morningside, it has a great community around it, so on Christmas day patients can go to a nice cafe or restaurant, whereas other such hospitals around the UK are often stuck out in the middle of nowhere.”

Does that mean the 34-year-old can get away for some Christmas dinner, too?

“I go in at 9am, have a meeting with all who are working that day, see people who’ve been admitted overnight, which all takes to about lunchtime. After that, I should be able to get away and maybe have some extra lunch with my family - and people phone if something needs to be done.”

Many of us would have wished for a job like this for Christmas

Like many, Sarah Wright has a young family, and would love to be spending the day at home with them. However, she works as presentations team leader at Edinburgh Zoo, and animals need caring for 365 days of the year.

“I chose this career path as I am passionate about animals – their care, welfare and conservation – and about informing people about conservation issues. So, as much as I love my family at home, I also care deeply about my animals at work. I will still get to see my kids open their presents and go home to have Christmas dinner, but I will spend the day working alongside likeminded, passionate people and a wonderful variety of animals – all of which have individual personalities and likes.

“While the animals won’t necessarily be bothered about it being Christmas Day, we will still make the day interesting and exciting for them with their favourite foods and enrichment items for them to interact with. Many members of the public are kind enough to purchase enrichment items for our animals through our Enrichment Wish List on Amazon, so we have an array of exciting things we can use to stimulate all of the animals’ natural behaviours.

“It’s a pleasure to work with colleagues with a shared passion and interest and we will all ensure that the festive spirit is high. While some of us will be working, others will get the chance to enjoy a Christmas off this year – by alternating each year everyone gets their fair share of family Christmases as well as zoo ones.

“As Edinburgh Zoo is open on Christmas Day, there will also be visitors full of festive cheer to brighten up the day. Chatting to interested visitors is always a good reminder of why the zoo is here, highlighting the positive difference we as zoo employees can make to people’s attitudes towards our animals and conservation issues.

“For most of the people working in this industry, it is a dream come true to work with animals on a daily basis. Many of us would have wished for something similar as a Christmas present long ago, so I definitely count myself lucky to have a fantastic job working with wonderful animals and people.

“For anyone with some time free this Christmas Day, pop along to the zoo to wish all the animals a merry Christmas. Just remember to leave promptly at the end of the day so we can all get home for our turkey dinner.”