Holidays in the ER: ‘It was the peak of my burnout and a stark reminder of my loneliness’

By Tina Yang, DO
Published December 18, 2023

Key Takeaways

The holiday season is often portrayed as a time of joyous festivities, warmth, and unity. It evokes images of glittering lights, cozy gatherings, and families exchanging gifts by a crackling fireplace.

But beneath the superficiality of these commercial holidays lies a complex reality that is often overlooked. The holiday season can be a source of deep sorrow and sadness for many. 

Feelings of isolation amidst the joy

My last year of residency was a persistent challenge that tested my resilience on a daily basis. The long hours muddled with self-doubt made it almost impossible for me to maintain a healthy mindset. 

The holiday season was especially isolating as I had been scheduled to work every holiday in the emergency department, while my co-residents had time off to celebrate with their friends and family.

I built upon the resentment I felt towards my residency program. This time represented the peak of my burnout, as that holiday season became a stark reminder of my loneliness.

While others reveled in the holiday spirit, I was clouded with feelings of isolation as I was unable to be surrounded by my support network. The lack of those connections left me feeling very alone amidst the joyous celebrations around me. I missed hearing my family banter and I longed to smell the delicious aromas of the holiday feast. During this time, I struggled in silence and attempted to get through this wearisome period alone. 

"I was left feeling disconnected from society, which in turn affected my compassion for my patients and my motivation to work."

Tina Yang, DO

Surrounded by grief

In addition to the intense emotions I was already experiencing, I felt an overwhelming sadness as I witnessed the deaths of patients that left grieving families in their absence. It deepened my own empathy for their grief and added to the emotional burden I already felt.  As I contemplated their suffering, visions of my own deceased loved ones flooded my mind. I could not help but imagine how it once was, while faced with the empty chair at the dinner table, the unopened gift meant for someone no longer there, their belongings collecting dust in a box. 

These echoes of loss triggered strong emotions—mainly it reminded me of the regret I have for missing the chance to spend time with my grandpa before he passed away. My grandpa resided on Hainan Island, just off the coast of mainland China, in a small apartment in the city of Sanya. This was where I spent most of my childhood, as my parents had entrusted me to my grandparents' care while they pursued their medical residencies in the US. 

I had a trip planned to visit my family after many years of being away, however the COVID-19 pandemic ruined those plans. Over the course of the next year, my grandpa's mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly, and he passed away the following year. The sting of missed chances and words left unspoken haunted me. 

"As I tried to provide comforting words to the grieving families of my patients, I was unintentionally feeding my own sadness and sense of loss."

Tina Yang, DO

Their anguish stirred up my unresolved grief over my grandfather's death and my regret that the pandemic had prevented me from visiting him one last time.

The heartache only deepened as the holiday season coincided with the gloomy New York City winter. The lack of sunlight and colder temperatures exacerbated my Seasonal Affective Disorder, encompassing me in a wet blanket of fatigue, depressed mood, and social withdrawal. 

Between the demands of working in the emergency department, the isolation from loved ones, and the frigid weather, seasonal depression tightened its grip around my psyche. I found what little joy or comfort I could in the hollow festivities around me, but the combined weight of sorrow and loneliness blurred each day into the next.

Prioritizing my own well-being

In time, I realized I could not continue down this path and needed to prioritize self-care. Reaching out to loved ones allowed their support to help lift the veil of isolation. I also focused on finding joy in the small things in life, such as appreciating the constant happiness and unyielding love from my dogs, savoring a warm cup of tea on a gloomy day, and embracing the warmth I could from the winter sun. 

The holidays may always carry some melancholy, but now I know to surround myself with people and pursuits that make each day brighter. The long nights in the emergency room no longer feel so endless and desolate.

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