Dec. 25—Dr. Piyal Patel will not be spending Christmas Day opening presents and playing with her two children.

Instead, she’ll be at the hospital.

Like hundreds of other medical professionals around San Luis Obispo County, Patel, a hospitalist at French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, is expected to work on Christmas, treating the numerous patients who are seeking care during the holiday.

Although it’s hard to not be with family on Christmas, Patel recognizes that she is not the only one who has to make adjustments in a year drastically changed by a global pandemic.

Since March, coronavirus safety regulations have meant restrictions on visitors at French Hospital, leaving many hospitalized patients without the ability to see their loved ones.

So while Patel, whose children are 4 and 6, would love to be at home with her own loved ones on Christmas Day, she said she knows her patients are feeling the same. She tries extra hard to bridge the gap left by the forced absence of family members and friends.

“I think people don’t want to be physically away from their families,” Patel said. “But, you know, someone has to take care of them, and I think that that’s just kind of what we do.”

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SLO hospital upholds holiday traditions amid COVID-19

Hospital staffers are no strangers to manufactured Christmas cheer.

They often deck the halls of their workplaces with cheery decorations. Staff members dressed in jolly attire wander the floors giving out gifts, and workers are treated to free meals from administration.

“(Christmas Day) is usually a fun day,” French Hospital nurse Allison Armstrong told The Tribune. “People dress up in like Santa hats or wear red, and we decorate patient boards and we try to bring up holiday cheer since it’s so unfortunate that patients have to spend their time here on Christmas.”

“It’s kind of a lighthearted day and we try to make it that way,” she added.

Armstrong added that one of the biggest difficulties in keeping spirits up this year has been the shadow of coronavirus darkening many patients’ moods.

“This year is just a little more stressful for everyone,” she said. “We’re all trying to do the best we can.”

A large part of the stress at French Hospital is the restriction on visitors.

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“It’s been difficult for family members to connect with, you know, the patients that are hospitalized,” Patel told The Tribune. “And so I think the staff, the nursing staff, the physicians — they all play an important role in kind of bridging that gap.”

Nursing and physician staff have found a number of ways around COVID-19 restrictions, mostly by making iPads available to patients so they can Facetime with their families while they recover.

Others have gotten more creative.

“There was a patient that was here long term, receiving chemotherapy,” Armstrong said. “Her husband and some of the staff members put together a really cute decoration of a fireplace and stockings and she had a whole little Christmas room set up with her all her cards.”

The patient in question has since been discharged, but the memory of her and the creative decorations stayed with Armstrong.

“It just really brightened her day and made her feel better,” Armstrong said. “She was going through such a tough time, and to lift her spirits was amazing.”

Doctor, nurse urge caution amid coronavirus surge

When it comes down to it, Christmas is just another day in the hospital — albeit one dominated by the specter of the novel coronavirus and the ever-present threat of becoming overwhelmed if COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

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As of Wednesday, there were more than 2,200 active cases of coronavirus in San Luis Obispo County — a grim record that could continue to grow if residents don’t adhere to public health recommendations.

In light of the local surge, Patel and Armstrong had a request for the public this holiday season:

Do your part to stop coronavirus, they said, so we can continue to do ours.

“We just need to stay strong and avoid social gatherings right now,” Armstrong said. “Stay home, wash your hands, wear a mask, and just do your part to keep our community safe and help us do our jobs.”