A Different Christmas is a project created over 20 years ago within the Students’ Association of the Faculty of Medicine of Lisbon (AEFML), having started as an initiative of the current Department of Responsibility and Social Welfare. It is a Transversal Project of the AEFML and has been carried out, since 2016, in partnership with the Students’ Association of the Faculty of Medical Sciences (AEFCM), covering all medical students in the city of Lisbon.
The main mission of a Different Christmas is to bring a smile and a little Christmas magic to those who are away from their loved ones during this season, whether for health reasons or for social reasons. Whether through the delivery of postcards and symbolic gifts, a friendly word or even a little music and entertainment, students and their families and friends embody the true Christmas spirit and provide a unique and familiar environment for those who need it most.
Maria Monteiro and José Domingos, both general coordinators of this project, explain what this initiative consists of.
What activities do you carry out?
Normally, the participants of a Different Christmas visit hospital services on 24 December, in order to bring some comfort and company to patients who are hospitalized during the Christmas season. Over the various editions of the project, these visits have increasingly covered hospitals in different parts of the country.
In addition, in the last edition, there were new initiatives that we intend to maintain this year, as a result of the creativity and innovation that were necessary in order to adapt to the pandemic situation.
Due to the pandemic last year, it was not possible to carry out visits to hospitals and homes. How did you adapt to carry out the project?
Last year, similarly to the different projects of the AEFML and AEFCM, a Different Christmas also had the need to reinvent itself. Without ever forgetting those who most needed a Different Christmas, we readjusted the patterns of our performance in a hospital environment. Since the participation of FMUL, NMS|FCM and ESEL students and their companions in hospital services would not be possible, the distribution of the already typical Christmas postcards and souvenirs to hospitalized patients was the responsibility of the Organizing Committee with the help of health professionals from these same services. In addition, after the very difficult year that 2020 was for the whole country, but especially for those who were daily at the forefront of the pandemic, we decided to also give health professionals Christmas souvenirs and postcards in recognition of their effort, work and dedication. Finally, in the last edition, the project took new directions and started to liven up Christmas for users of homes and institutions, who also found themselves more alone at this time, through serenades at the windows, bringing joy to those who so much needed, and prioritizing the safety of everyone involved.
Will these visits be resumed this year? What is the chosen date?
It is our intention to resume these visits in this edition, on 24 December. We believe that the presence of volunteers in the hospital service is part of a very special experience both for patients, who welcome us with open arms, and for participants, who return home with the certainty that their Christmas has been enriched by this visit.
This desire to return to services is, of course, accompanied by a commitment to comply with the safety standards recommended by the DGS and to implement other measures deemed necessary, with our priority being the safety and comfort of the hospital services that welcome us and our participants.
In addition, we remain attentive to the evolution of the pandemic situation and prepared to adapt if necessary, leaving the promise that, as in the last edition, those who most need affection this Christmas will not be forgotten.
Which hospitals will you visit this year and how do you make that choice?
We are present in Hospitals in Greater Lisbon, Loures, Cascais, Amadora-Sintra, Almada, Setúbal, Vila Franca de Xira, Santarém, Beja, Leiria, and Funchal, in a total of 21 hospitals in the 2020 edition. This year, as has been done so far, we plan to maintain and even expand the number of hospitals covered by a Different Christmas, our objective being the continuous expansion of the project.
What realities do you come across in the hospitals you have been visiting?
In our visits to children and adults around the country, we find a little of everything! We see the innocence of children who find joy in even the most difficult situations. We are faced with the richness of those who have a life full of stories to tell and who only need an attentive ear. Deep down, we meet people who are at vulnerable points in their lives and in different states of mind, and who we hope to remind that, in the midst of the adversity they are going through, they are not forgotten and are invaluable.
What do people tell you when you visit them? What is their reaction to your presence?
It's what gives meaning to everything we do and why the project takes place every year – seeing people's reactions to our presence!
Christmas is a time of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, we know that it is a period of love, happiness and joy, when people are more generous, more present, happier. But on the other hand, sometimes we forget that it is also a period of heightened loneliness, suffering, sadness, and longing, when old memories of past happiness bring to light what no longer exists. It is for these people that a Different Christmas exists and will continue to exist, so that they know that things will get better, that they are not alone, that they are not excluded from the world, that there are people who remember them. It is for these people that we are going to be there, spreading all the energy, all the love and all the generosity of Christmas, which for many can be a Different Christmas.
We share a story by a volunteer who participated in this project:
Madalena Santos, FMUL Year 4 student
It was with a Different Christmas that I realized how different Christmas is experienced in Hospitals. Par excellence, Christmas is the time for family, friends and love. And yet, so many people across the country find themselves deprived of the magic that surrounds this season.
We could think that these people would be sad, alone… Often they are… But there are others who have so much life that they illuminate the whole unit.
I've met one of these people, a woman so full of life that it wasn't a little illness (as she affectionately called the pneumonia that had brought her to hospital) that prevented her from making everyone's Christmas Different… With her joy, stories, knowledge and kindness, she made everyone's Christmas, in the Unit where she was, a little more family like…. I can't guarantee that it changed other people's Christmas, but I can strongly say that it certainly changed mine…
And, maybe until that moment, I would have always associated a negative connotation with the name of the project, due to the expectation of what I was going to find... Little did I know that the big difference that had occurred that year had happened to me, and it wasn't negative at all…
This project makes Christmas different for a lot of people, yes… But the most different thing about it is the desire that we have for it to be always be like this, for all those we come across...
We share two more testimonials from two students who tell us how special it is to participate in this initiative.
Bárbara Godinho, NMS | FCM Year 5 student
To be involved in a Different Christmas is undoubtedly special. It is to personally witness gratitude in the eyes of those who live the 24th with us. We associate Christmas with a very unique family spirit, very much ours, but what if we could distribute it and multiply the smiles? This is the objective of a project that encourages solidarity, sharing and giving and which I truly believe makes a difference for every patient and health professional who sees the corridors of services being filled with music, entertainment, laughter, games and lots of colour! In each touch, each hug and each smile, there is something that fills us with excitement, a few seconds suspended in time, I would say, because we feel that we are present. A Different Christmas is just that, it's being there.
Inês Quinteiro, FMUL Year 5 student
During Christmas, our life is less focused on ourselves and more centred on others. Participating in a Different Christmas means “the others” are those with whom we would share a place at the happy Christmas table. This project gives us the opportunity to expand our horizons. It creates in us the need to bring the joy of Christmas eve to the Hospital. As healthcare students, our days are often spent within the 4 walls of the wards. On the 24th, the place I go to every day always feels genuinely different. Perhaps it is the energy of each volunteer that is reflected on the walls, perhaps the sound of voices and guitars echoing in the corridors. Maybe it's just the rare smile of the patients with whom we shared that moment.
On that day, we go back home feeling more complete, knowing that we carry within us part of the happiness of those we came across and that we left someone's heart warmer on a cold Christmas night.