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Meet the unsung heroes working to keep us safe on Christmas day in Northern Ireland



Samantha Evans at work for the NSPCC

Samantha Evans at work for the NSPCC

Consultant paediatrician Dr Ray Nethercott

Consultant paediatrician Dr Ray Nethercott

George Gardiner will be on duty in the ICU

George Gardiner will be on duty in the ICU

Karen English at her desk

Karen English at her desk

Emer McWilliams will be putting in a 12-hour shift

Emer McWilliams will be putting in a 12-hour shift

Paul Baylis says the day is busy

Paul Baylis says the day is busy


Samantha Evans at work for the NSPCC

While most of us will spend Christmas Day with family, opening presents and enjoying a turkey dinner, a band of dedicated people will be doing a day's work. Leona O'Neill and Lauren Harte talk to some of those at the coalface.

‘Abuse does not stop for the holidays’

Samantha Evans (34) from Belfast is a NSPCC helpline practitioner

Our whole team will be working over Christmas," she says. "The NSPCC helpline is for adults who are phoning with concerns for children. We provide a lot of advice, information and guidance. Sometimes we even have parents calling in to talk about difficulties that they are having with their children and they need a bit of guidance.

"Sometimes members of the public, family members, neighbours call in with concerns about children that really need to be followed up with an assessment with the kids and the family to make sure that everything is OK. We would then share that information on to the appropriate agencies so that they can carry out assessment."

Samantha says abuse and neglect don't magically stop during the Christmas holidays.

"On Christmas Day I'd say it will be quieter than normal but I imagine there will still be a lot of people calling with concerns about kids," she says. "Abuse doesn't stop because of the holidays. It's ongoing and children are vulnerable at all times of the year.

"Substance and alcohol abuse are regular concerns that we get through on the phones on a regular basis, as well as neglect. There will be kids waking up on Christmas Day with no toys, no food in the cupboards, none of their needs being attended to, and that's neglectful. Mum and dad or whoever will be out partying all over the Christmas period and not meeting the kids' needs, not making sure the home environment is suitable for the children."

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Samantha says that, after work, she will mark Christmas in her own way.

"For me Christmas is an excuse to meet up with friends," she says. "I'm not a big holiday person. I don't have any children of my own, or nieces or nephews. On Christmas evening after work I'm heading over to my sister's with a couple of friends and we'll all do Christmas together. That night we'll have dinner with crackers and the like. It won't be your traditional style Christmas, more like an alternative one.

"I don't think that I'm missing out on anything by working on Christmas Day at all. Christmas is all about the children and when I go and I'm working on the NSPCC helpline, kids are still your priority, just in a different way. Because there are kids out there who just need someone to be there for them, even on Christmas Day. And those neighbours, family members, concerned people who contact us with concerns, kids need them to act as a voice for them at Christmas as well as the rest of the year. So we will be here."

‘Santa won’t forget the kids stuck in hospital’


Consultant paediatrician Dr Ray Nethercott (51) is based at the South West Acute hospital in Enniskillen.

Dr Nethercott says: "Compared to previous years, this Christmas there is more pressure on staff. That's down to demands on the service alongside budgetary issues which are not in our power to resolve. However, we are still very much committed to the task in hand of providing for patients as best we can.

"In spite of that, Christmas for the most part is a joyful time of year to come into work. Working over the festive period is part and parcel of the job. We adjust to it and our families fully understand and support us so we make the best of it.

"There's always a really nice atmosphere around the hospital at this time of year."

However, he says there are other occasions when it can be a difficult time to care for those who absolutely have to be in hospital at this time of year.

"Some of the saddest things can happen at Christmas because the expectation is that it will be so good, and sadly that's not always the way life is," he says.

"Neither young children nor their parents want to be in hospital over Christmas. Unfortunately there will always be some who have to remain in our care over the festive period and we bring as much Christmas cheer to everyone as we can.

"Anyone who is well enough will be allowed home and our door is always open to those who need to come back to us."

Dr Nethercott stresses that Father Christmas will still be dropping in to deliver presents to those children whose illnesses prevent them from being allowed home to be with loved ones this Christmas:

"Santa Claus will be showing up on Christmas Eve to check up on everyone before he gets on with his busy night. The children have no need to fear that he might miss them out if they're in hospital because he will know exactly where to find them.

"He gives us a guarantee every year that he will drop into Enniskillen Hospital.

"When you see the smiling faces of the young patients the next morning, it brings great joy and cheer and makes the job all worthwhile."

‘The news keeps on rolling, even on the big day’

Karen English is a senior broadcast journalist with BBC Radio Ulster. Married to Brian, she lives in Bangor and has a 16-year-old son Joshua and 19-year-old daughter Sarah-Jane

Karen will be behind the microphone, reading hourly news bulletins on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

"This year has been a news juggernaut providing the fuel journalism runs on," she says. "And it keeps on rolling, even at Christmas.

"As is traditional in my broadcasting world - one marked by crazy hours and interrupted holidays - I'll be behind the Radio Ulster mic bright and early on Christmas morning.

"At six o'clock I'll be pounding the keyboard, making check calls with the emergency services and cutting audio. Bulletin compiled, I'll then head into the studio to await the familiar sound of the pips signalling seven o'clock to deliver the news to Northern Ireland. Thereafter I'll be updating bulletins throughout the day.

"This is nothing new. For the past 31 years, broadcasting has been an intrinsic part of my Christmas Day routine. And as someone who has trouble segueing in and out of work mode, if I wasn't in the office I'd be glued to a news channel anyway."

Karen says she is lucky that her family are used to the often odd hours associated with life in the newsroom.

"Fortunately for me I have an understanding family," she says. "Although my son and daughter jokingly refer to me as the antithesis of Santa who is present on Christmas morning.

"When friends lament that Christmas for me 'tis the season to have my nose to the grindstone, I'm mindful that while I'm ensconced in a warm, comfortable studio in Belfast, there are journalists risking death working in the world's most dangerous reporting environments like Yemen and Syria.

"On Christmas Day I'll be reporting on a selection of stories - everything from the Queen's speech to the Pope's Christmas message. And with plenty to do, the day zips by.

"And there is always a silver lining to working over the festive season. As the solitary figure in the newsroom on Christmas Day and Boxing Day I get to flaunt my over-the-top novelty knits embellished with baubles and flashing lights without anyone telling me how naff I look.

"And there's also no one to hold me back from snaffling the chocolate green triangles from the newsroom tub of seasonal sweets."

‘There’s no scope for relaxing’

George Gardiner (53) from Ballymena is a consultant in intensive care medicine at Belfast City Hospital. He is married to Shauna and they have two boys, Charlie (10) and Rohan (8)

I will be working in the intensive care unit at Belfast City Hospital on Christmas Day," he says. "The shift changes over between 7 and 8 o'clock in the morning. I'll be there for 8am to hand over from the doctors in training who have been on the night before.

"We'll go around all the patients and get the latest updates and the day will commence. We will examine patients, make plans, carry out investigations, communicate with staff and focus on the needs of the patients.

"It is a 24-hour period of responsibility, at least half of which is spent in the hospital, if not more, and the rest on call from home.

"Intensive care is a very specialist area. It's not the place for Christmas trees or anything that gathers dust. We have a few modest decorations. Intensive care is very much a team effort, so there will be seven nurses, two doctors, a physiotherapist and a few support staff in the ward.

"We are all planning to bring in a few items of food each. So we'll have an ad hoc Christmas lunch and as each member of staff gets cycled through and relieved for their break they'll get some food. I'm bringing in the roast ham and the roast potatoes.

"The intensive care unit isn't an area that changes much from an ordinary weekday to a weekend or a day like Christmas Day.

"It is a highly technical environment and there really isn't room for relaxing the normal routines. The patients are the focus of everything we do. There is no scope for taking your eye off the ball."

George says that his children are, by now, accustomed to his work pattern and understand he has to go to the hospital.

"My children will go up to their grandparents' house on Christmas Day and I'll give them a call on Facetime," he says.

"They understand. They have grown up with me being away a lot of the time and on call, disturbed nights and disappearing suddenly and off to take phone calls. They will take it in their stride.

"We will be doing our family Christmas Day on Boxing Day. There will be no shortage of turkey."

‘We’ll be very lucky to get half-an-hour to eat dinner’

South Belfast paramedic Emer McWilliams (46) will be working a 12-hour shift on Christmas Day. Married to Bert, also a paramedic, she will leave her four children - two sets of twins Jack and Matthew (14) and Sarah and Kate (12) - at home and head out on Christmas morning to serve the community.

I'll be working from 8am to 8pm with my colleague Noreen," she says. "So it will be a full 12-hour shift on both Christmas Day and Boxing Day. It's pretty much the same as any other day - get up, into work, check your vehicle and your equipment and away you go. I fully expect it to be a very busy day. So we'll be out pretty much straight away answering calls, bringing patients in, clearing the hospital and getting our next patient.

"The types of calls could be as varied as from delivering a baby to dealing with a child who has fallen off their new bike from Santa and injured themselves, to someone suffering a stroke or heart attack or someone who suffers from mental health problems feeling suicidal. There is no set pattern. It could quite literally be anything.

"We would be going out to elderly people who don't have anyone else also. I think that Christmas is quite a sad and lonely time for some people. We might be the only person that they see on that day."

Emer says that, although she would love to be home with her loved ones on Christmas Day, she accepts that it is the nature of the job and that many other families need her help on the day.

"Obviously I'd prefer to be at home with my own family and children," she says. "But my children are now of an age that they understand that I have to go to work and that there are people out there who need these resources, even on Christmas Day.

"We will have Christmas Day on Christmas Eve with the children. We go out for breakfast, we go and visit some family and exchange gifts.

"We'll come back, just the six of us, have our dinner, the children will open some presents and we'll just sit down and watch TV. And I'll get up the next morning. The kids will probably be up before me and come down and see what gifts they have and then I'll toodle off to work.

"I'll probably video call them a few times during the day, just to see what they are up to. My husband is also a paramedic, and he isn't working Christmas Day, so they are quite used to us going to work at some part of Christmas. I do feel like I'm missing out but it's part and parcel of the job.

"I think that everyone in the Ambulance Service is either a mother, father, brother, sister, son and daughter and everyone is entitled to their time off. So you just have to take your turn.

"In the ambulance station we will organise amongst ourselves to bring in some breakfast things and then my colleague Noreen's partner is going to make us our Christmas dinner and bring it down to us. But we're not even relying on the fact that we will get half-an-hour to eat that.

"We are hoping that it will be uninterrupted. Noreen's going to do her famous pavlova for us. We'll be very lucky if we get a half-an-hour to eat our dinner."

‘A lull, then the Christmas rush begins later’

Dr Paul Baylis (51) is consultant in emergency medicine at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry. The Manchester native has lived in Northern Ireland since 1992 and is married with two sons

When it comes to the influx of patients through the door on Christmas Day, Paul says the pattern stays much the same each year.

"Christmas Day usually starts off very quietly as no one wants to be sick so there's a lull," he says. "Previously the first in the door would have been kids with injuries from new bikes or rollerskates but now you can see that they're less active - now it could be a wrist injury from playing on an X-Box or Wii. Across the day you'll have some ladies coming in with cooking-related injuries such as cuts or burns. Later on, sadly, the cases are alcohol-related from those who have over-indulged or the spirit of goodwill has ebbed over, leading to family fights.

There have been times when I have been stitching up members of the same family in different cubicles. Also you have those who are very low in spirits or alone at Christmas and attempted to take their own lives through self-harm or an overdose.

"Finally you'll have people who have been putting things off that they shouldn't have and not realised that what they thought was indigestion was in fact a heart attack brewing.

"Boxing Day is often one of the worst of the year because there is all this backlog of illness, and it's all repeated again on New Year's Day.

"A lot of elective surgery doesn't take place in the week before Christmas so that gives us a bit of help in terms of winding down and allowing for the extra flow of emergency cases.

"When GPs shut up shop on Christmas Eve and don't come back for a few days then the reality is that patients will come to the doors of A&E, as we're there 24/7.

"I'm not knocking the GPs as they deserve their holidays after working hard all year, but that's the time when we get overrun.

"The key message for people is that they need to remember that our emergency departments are only for real emergencies.

"While no one will ever be turned away and people will be seen, those who have been assessed as non-emergency could have a very long wait and may be better going to their local pharmacist or GP when they return after Christmas."

For Dr Paul and his medical colleagues, working over Christmas comes with the job.

"Generally there's a good spirit amongst the hospital staff on the day as everyone is there to do the job they have trained to do.

"We do try to enjoy the early part of the day as much as possible as we know we'll be overrun later.

"It's challenging for those with families but we try to even out the rostering so that people get some time with their loved ones."

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