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Andy Lippman: Special Responders on Duty, Holidays and Always

Remember during the first months of the COVID pandemic when first responders were the toast of the town?
A doctor at a South Pasadena prayer breakfast a few years ago recalled a family that delivered baked goods to a hospital every day so the staff could have something special to start their day.
I want to end 2023 by making sure that first responders know that they are still something special. I’m using the term “first responders” as many people used it during the pandemic. Maybe, I should be calling them “special responders.”
Many people have worked holidays during their careers. First responders — and I’m especially now looking at you — firefighters, police officers and hospital workers — know that being on a shift either Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day — is baked into their career.
It’s not as if they forget about the holidays. There are trees in the office and Christmas day dinners to be eaten at the firehouse. Nurses decorate themselves in holiday garb and have Christmas parties just like the rest of us.
But, while they try to keep the spirit of the holidays in their heart, there is work to be done. People don’t stop going to the emergency room because it’s the night before Christmas.
There are Rose Parade floats to be shepherded through the streets of South Pasadena on New Year’s Eve and dried Christmas trees present a particular fire hazard.
Police Chief Brian Solinsky estimated that he has spent between 20-22 years patrolling in South Pasadena on Christmas Eve or Christmas.
Solinsky said that he knows the town and its residents so well that driving a patrol car on Christmas Eve does seem like being in his surrogate home.
“It’s almost kind of magical,” Solinsky said. “It’s a small sacrifice any first responder has to make, but it still hits home. You are an officer driving through town on Christmas Eve and imagining what is going on in the houses that you are passing by. There’s usually a peace and tranquility before anyone is up.
“It hits home in a sense. You truly wish for peace and joy for people in the homes you are driving by.
“After 8 p.m., the traffic slows down on Fair Oaks Ave until the streets are almost empty. And you have time to reflect on your family and your secondary family. You get to recognize families and are invested in them. You are invested in that family. You wonder what Christmas day will bring to them. It’s a small town, community feel.”
Fire Chief Paul Riddle guesses that he’s spent 25 of his 32 years as a South Pasadena firefighter working either Christmas eve or Christmas. The firefighters have a tradition of cooking both Christmas Eve and Christmas dinner for everyone on the shift and their families.
“It’s all hands-on deck,” Riddle said. “They prepare the meal. Some are good at cooking. Some people bring appetizers. Families come and join in.
“My two daughters participated. Some of their best memories are Christmas at the firehouse.”
During the entire month of December, the South Pasadena Fire Department participates in a toy drive with sometimes 15 bins, 4 feet high, filled with donated toys waiting to be handed out, or passed on to other fire stations for delivery.
“It’s always very humbling to see families come in and to see the kids pick out their toys. They don’t miss a beat,” Riddle said. “They are so appreciative. It’s humbling and it reminds us of what the season is all about.”
The season isn’t all dinners or quiet nights for either the fire department or the police.
Riddle said that every holiday season they have to respond to fires for two main reasons: either decorations are plugged in improperly or dry Christmas trees that can easily catch fire.
“When we’re dealing with trees, the fires can get very serious because they go up so quickly and it’s hard to get people out of the house,” Riddle said.
Both police and fire help escort floats make their way to the Rose Parade route on New Year’s Eve. The firefighters are also on standby on the parade route.
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are busy, Solinsky said, both in terms of helping with getting floats to the destinations and also watching for drivers who have been drinking.
No place is the pace more unpredictable than at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, where nurses, doctors and staff hope for a quiet, if not a silent, night.
“I assume we will have very few cases — only emergencies or traumas, but you never really know how busy a day may be in the operating room,” said nurse Lucy Albrightson, who has been at Huntington since 2009, and was in the neonatal intensive care unit for 13 years before moving over to operating room duties.
“In NICU, it’s business as usual, but families would often bring us food and treats throughout the day. In OR, it’s reduced staffing because we don’t have regular scheduled cases,” Albrightson said. “The hospital is calmer (on Christmas) than it is on a regular work day, but there is still a festive feel in the hospital.”
There are decorations in the break room and there is a place in the hallway for cards that people might send to hospital staff.
Trees are placed around the hospital grounds so the staff is never far away from the spirit of the holiday, even if they aren’t home.
“I feel the pull greatly to be with my family, but working on the holidays is a necessary part of the job,” said Danielle Brooks, who works as a nurse in the hospital’s emergency room. “I’ve wanted to be a nurse since I was in high school, starting as a junior volunteer, so I knew before starting my career my holiday celebration would be a little different.
“My shift is from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. so my husband waits for me to come home to exchange stockings on Christmas Eve and then we have a big breakfast with the rest of our family Christmas morning. I cherish all the moments by celebrating the holiday season, rather than just the day.”
Brooks said that this year, after a particularly emotional shift, her husband surprised her by putting up and lighting the Christmas tree himself.
No one wants to have to be in the Huntington Hospital emergency room over the holidays, but it happens every year, adding additional stress, which increases if they are admitted to the hospital.
“Children are excited for the holiday and upset they might miss Santa Claus,” Brooks said. “I make sure my younger patients know that Santa Claus understands and won’t forget about them.”
So, here’s to the special responders who comfort us — whether they work at Huntington Hospital, or the police or fire departments. Here’s to anyone who goes out of their way to help us on a holiday or on any day. Let’s all be special responders in 2024 and remember to help each other 365 days a year.
Happy New Year.

First published in the December 29 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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