A Plea for Snow Days & Common Sense

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My part of the country has been pummeled with snow in the recent past. Many local school districts had to cancel school 4-5 days in just over a week due to two substantial storms. The forecasters are predicting yet another 12-18 inches just in time for the start of the next school week. At this rate, we might be sending our kids to school on the 4th of July!

Sigh.

Yes, there are lots of reasons to sigh about this, even among the most ardent of winter warriors and snow lovers. There are already 50+ inches of snow outside my door (not including the plow piles, many of which reach well above 6 ft). There is nary a sidewalk or shoulder to be found. Many local roads can only accommodate one way traffic at a time and turning corners is down right hazardous with all the obstructed views.

All of this danger is when the snow isn’t actively falling, when the winds are not whipping flakes into a fury, when a slick, slushy layer is not sticking to the roads. When the bad weather is actively happening things get really hairy. And it’s typically on these days, when conditions outside really compromise the safety of kids at bus stops or walking to school or of any vehicle or persons on the road, that we get a snow day.

The other day, on the heels of our many recent snow days, the local NPR station had a whole call in segment on the burden of snow days on families. Caller after caller lamented the challenges for working parents, single working parents, parents of disabled children, parents without telecommuting options, parents with part-time or hourly jobs (who simply don’t get paid if they don’t go into work), parents whose own parents can’t provide back-up childcare…. It went on and on.

The radio hosts and some callers discussed viable options for snow days such as alternating days with neighbors so that at least some of the folks in the neighborhood could go to work. Others spoke of progressive employers who offer on-site back up childcare  or access to on-demand in-home care through external agencies. Some suggested schools should stay open despite inclement weather to provide kids safe place to be in a storm and make sure they don’t go hungry.

I suppose I should have been sympathetic to these snow day woes and interested in the proposed solutions as the parent of two school aged children who often must be at work no matter how inclement the weather is, but instead I was bothered by the idiocy of it all.

Let me tell you why.

It looks peaceful but the roads are treacherous.

It looks peaceful but the roads are treacherous.

I know what it’s like to have to travel through treacherous conditions to get to work. I own an all-wheel-drive car. I live close to work. I know enough to leave plenty of time. Yet, I have still experienced my life passing before my eyes as I slip, slide, and fishtail the 4.5 miles to work on those days when patient care requires me to be at the hospital. I know what it’s like to hunker down at work with 4 days worth of clothes and rations when anticipated conditions suggest it would be unsafe for me to travel back and forth from work. I have no choice. This is what I signed up to do. You may need me, and I will be there for you in the trauma bay.

But you know what…don’t the majority of us have a choice? In fact, should it even be a choice to put oneself and others at risk if what you are going out of doors for is considered non-essential work (to use a state of emergency term).

I know that nearly 100 people died with thousands more injured during the Blizzard of 1978. I know that the pro-active state of emergency declarations due to accurate prediction of epic storms (yah 21st century weather forecasting technology!) in the modern era (first, two years ago this week and again last week) has kept many people safe. I know this because I had to be at work and it was eerily quiet in the trauma bay. I also know that on these other days of seemingly non-epic storms, when the predictions for danger aren’t as dire, that the ED is like a war zone, filled with people who ventured out only to get injured, some in fender benders and others in major pile ups. I know that some of those injured people die no matter how hard we try. I know from my most recent call on a snowy, though not state of emergency, day what it’s like to code and code and code a 30 year old whose Civic was no match for a semi on a treacherous interstate, only to declare him dead. I know the sinking feeling of getting that message that your child’s school bus has been in a crash on a day that school was not cancelled despite the falling snow. (Luckily it was minor and no one was hurt but it could have been very different with 40 kids piled into the ED and the trauma bays instead of driving their caretakers up a wall at home on a snow day). 

My daughter's bus stop circa this morning. No where to stand.

My daughter’s bus stop circa this morning. No where to stand.

So that’s the thing about snow days. I get that they are inconvenient all around. But it’s not just about keeping our kids safe, not just about the walkers who don’t have cleared side walks or lack of space at designated bus stops. It’s about the safety of everyone else around us too. To me, preventing one injury, even one death, is worth all the inconveniences. Back-up employer-based childcare (though wonderful when your nanny gets sick on a normal weather day) involves putting both you and your child (children) at risk on the drive to your workplace. Calling in a care provider in a pinch puts that person on the road and then you too will make have to make your way to work in poor conditions. As we learned this week, public transportation isn’t always a viable option to avoid the roads and be safe. Similarly, while the carpooling equivalent of watching kids on a snow day in the neighborhood seems great, how would the ones who drew the short stick and got stuck with the kids (this to me was the tone of the call in show) feel when the other mom or dad across the way never came home that night (and not because they were on call at the hospital)?

Are these inconveniences too terrible in the name of safety? Because I do believe that if it’s too dangerous out there to get our kiddos to school then it’s likely too dangerous for the rest of us (unless, of course, you are a considered an essential worker like I often am). What does it say about our world today that in some districts families are so strapped to put food on the table that putting kids in harm’s way in order to be fed is preferred over a snow day? Why do we tolerate employment policies that punish the least affluent among us in hourly or part-time jobs with lost wages (or worse, threats of termination after so many missed days) for something as legitimate as unsafe travel conditions? Are those industries not involved in the assurance of public safety (our dedicated fire, police, and EMS providers) and necessary urgent/emergent/long-term care (our inpatient, ED, and SNF/LTAC/home services nurses, doctors, aides, etc.) so important that they can’t take the financial and/or productivity losses of a few extra snow days here and there to have fewer injured (or possibly dead) employees?

Parking for many of our surgeons inaccessible.

Parking for many of our surgeons inaccessible.

Notably, many healthcare systems are no better, keeping their elective schedules and outpatient clinics running despite inclement weather. Yes, there is pressure to attain patient satisfaction but why should we put all the doctors, nurses, admins, patients, and families at risk for hernias, and wound checks, and well visits, and routine follow-ups for chronic diseases that could easily wait for another day. Yes, that means when the next clinic day or OR day is quintuple booked workers will have to work harder and stay later and patients/families will have to be more patient but at least we won’t be coding someone who was headed in for a non-life-threatening issue during a snow storm. Those unfortunate enough to experience life threatening issues on those days will have access to the rest of us fire, police, EMS, ED staff, trauma surgeons…. I promise.

So, when our superintendents who have considered the forecast, reports of road conditions from our DPW, and the possibility of keeping the schools open until July give our kids a snow day, why not just declare it a snow day for everyone except those few essential workers who must compromise their own safety to get to jobs that provide services for everyone else’s safety and well-being?

Me in the trauma bay during Storm Nemo, February 2013.

Me in the trauma bay during Storm Nemo, February 2013.

Not every storm warrants a state of emergency and not every snow fall warrants a snow day. And depending on where your home is located relative to your workplace, the two may not both be experiencing the same weather conditions. But when things are rough out there, let’s quit complaining about the burden of snow days. As a whole we need to exercise more common sense and implement policies that keep families and workers (even if they don’t have school aged children) safe and out of the trauma bay.

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Driving tips from your friendly neighborhood trauma surgeon

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No one ever wants to meet me…Well, at least inside of a hospital.  If you are meeting me in a hospital, it is likely because you have been stabbed, shot, assaulted, or in a car accident.  Although the only advice I have about avoiding the first three mechanisms of injury is to stay away from “two dudes” and not try to sell Bibles on the street at 2 am, I do have some more specific advice when it comes to car accidents.  In my non-scientifically proven experience, the majority of my patients are in the hospital due to someone’s bad decisions – either their own or someone else’s.  And don’t get me wrong, I make bad decisions all the time.  For example, I ate a chocolate doughnut this morning for breakfast. However, no one ever expects their seemingly small bad decision to text their husband, or try and beat that red light on the way to work to result in their meeting me at the hospital.  But it happens.  Every.  Single.  Day.  So, stay safe America, and here are some trusty driving tips from your friendly, neighborhood trauma surgeon.

1.  Seatbelts are good, especially if you are pregnant.

I am not going to go into how many pregnant women (just in the last year alone) I have seen ejected from vehicles during car accidents and try to describe the tragedy that ensues.  However, no matter who you are – old, young, short, tall, overweight, or what trimester of pregnancy you are in, wear your dang seatbelt.  It saves lives, and there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever to NOT wear one.  So, can you please just wear it?  Tire marks across your belly are just not a good look.

2.  Texting is bad.

I know it is hard for some of you young grasshoppers to imagine, but back in “the day”, phones needed to have wires.  Therefore, they were only located in places with walls and telephone jacks.  Meaning, somehow, I was successfully able to be a teenager and not communicate with anyone for the 15-20 minute drive between my house and my destination.  And, believe it or not, my social life did not suffer.  There is nothing in this world so important to make you pick up your phone at all while driving.  Life seemed to go on just fine before this capability, and you have a much higher chance of your life continuing to go on if you forget that this capability exists.

3.  Let’s talk about alcohol.

I get it, alcohol seems to have some pretty magical powers.  It will give the average Joe the comedic powers of Jerry Seinfeld.  It can even make your 60 year old neighbor look like Heidi Klum.  But it will not make you a long-lost member of the Andretti family.  In fact, it won’t make you a better driver of any vehicle in any way, shape, or form.  It will make your reaction times slower, and your likelihood of being involved in or causing an accident exponentially higher.  This is true for driving cars, mopeds, motorcycles and yes, even golf carts.  Let me also tell you, from my non scientifically-proven experience: You will probably be fine. But, your friends riding with you, or the person that you hit with your car will not be.  And living with the guilt of confining your best friend to a wheelchair for the rest of his or her life is probably something you don’t want.  With so many designated driver services out there right now, there is just no reason to drive yourself after you have morphed into your Jerry Seinfeld alter ego.

4.  Speaking of the Andrettis…

Speeding really will not get you there any faster.  And I can prove this mathematically.  The average commuter travels 15 miles one way, with an average trip lasting almost 26 minutes. Increasing speed by 5 – 10 miles per hour for short periods of time is not going to shave your commute off by half.  So, if you truly are running late, driving faster is not going to make up any considerable amount of time.  You, in fact, will still be late.  And let me tell you, being 10 minutes late to work is waaaaay better than not showing up at all.

5.  And on the topic of work…

If yet another Snowmageddon has arrived at your doorstep and your job doesn’t involve saving lives or ensuring public safety, you have many viable options.  Sleeping in late, watching an omnipresent Law and Order marathon, climbing the walls because your children are at home (yet again) – all acceptable activities.  However, driving to work with your car functioning as a bobsled is NOT one of them!  Stay at home peeps.  Just lock yourself in the closet with some wine and cookies if the kids start giving you homicidal tendencies.

Think I am exaggerating?  Don’t want to follow any of the above advice? Don’t worry.  I will still be here… at the hospital… waiting to cut off all your clothes, see you naked, and then charge YOU for the experience.  Oh, that doesn’t sound like fun?  Oh, well in that case, re-read the above, and we can meet for coffee instead.

Stay safe!