I have a confession that may surprise you.
In March, I accepted a full-time position as a dietary assistant at a hospital here in Maine. A couple of close friends agreed that it seemed to be a logical blend of healthcare and food. I have experience working in a hospital for a private Dr in Florida and I worked in the kitchen of a nursing home in NC during my college years.
One friend was concerned I wouldn’t be able to tolerate what patients were being fed since some hospitals have a McDonald’s in their lobby.
Seriously…it’s the last place a McDonald’s should be—they are the antithesis of anything healthy. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll be happy to know you can get a side salad and a black coffee. If you haven’t read “Fast Food Nation,” I highly recommend grabbing it at your library—there is an audiobook version if that’s easier for you.
Back to the hospital escapade.
At this point, I feel I should forewarn you. This isn’t a “morning coffee read.” It’s more like the-boss-will-be-in-a-meeting-for-2-hours-and-I-don’t-feel-like-working-type of reading. Buckle up.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into, quite honestly. I was in a fairly progressive hospital, thankfully.
During the interview process, I was very candid about my goals and who I am. I was also clear about determining the hospital’s values aligned with mine. A job interview is about you hiring them as much as it’s about them hiring you. Despite not interviewing for a job in a decade now, the interview process wasn’t frightful in the least for me. In all honesty, it was actually…kinda fun…
The managers explained the goals of the hospital’s kitchen, what the position entailed, and the kitchen’s many roles throughout the life of the hospital. There’s a cafeteria staff that serves non-patients and staff, a department that handles catering, and a department for the patients. I’d be working in the latter, personally assembling and delivering meals to patients…eventually taking patient orders and working with the dietician.
The first day of training should have probably sent me packing, but I never give up easily.
I arrived a few minutes early to training, only to find a locked door and no visible entrance for “non-badged” employees. The temp was in the teens and I was hellbent on not going all the way to the main entrance just to make my way back to this damn building.
Most of my stubbornness was admittedly based on pride. I had absolutely no idea how to get back to this building, once I was inside of the hospital. I’d then I’d be late for my first day of work. Nnnnnnnooooo!
If you don’t know my current situation, my husband and I just moved to Maine less than 3 months ago. We barely know our way around the cities here and have CERTAINLY never been at a hospital. (I barely know anything about the hospitals on Long Island thankfully, and we lived there for over 12 years!)
As luck would have it, there was a bright red phone outside of the building that I used to call security. On the first attempt, the phone didn’t work. In less than 5 minutes, I already had 3 red flags to go home and I was 5 seconds from having Rob turn around and come pick me up. But I never give up that easily.
Once security found me, I was shuffled to HR for training. The 3 people in the office didn’t know where I was supposed to be training—the training usually took place on Monday’s, but I was there on a Tuesday “for some reason.” (Their words, not mine. Red flag #4.)
“The supervisor wasn’t in yet but would be there very shortly. I just needed to hold tight while they printed some papers for me.” Thankfully, she was there before they had time to print any information. (I have no idea what they were printing for me since I never signed anything. A clever cover so I didn’t know you were completely lost? Your cover’s blown. Red flag #5.)
The training was blindly painful for me. I should have left at lunchtime and never come back.
6 hours in front of a computer with heavily-detailed info I’d never use again but needed to pass, in a room with people having conversations with HR about their new job duties and the upcoming blizzard arrangements for that night. That’s my summary of the torturous morning.
Did I mention I was fasting? Rob laughs at me because it seems I pick THE WORST times to fast (like the time I did a raw liquid soup fast and our friend’s wedding fell in the middle of it…how’s that MY fault!?! They should have moved the wedding!).
Trust me though, it’s all very logical in my world. I had NO idea where the kitchen was, NO idea what they’re serving, NO idea how to heat up my food if I had brought anything, what time I can have a salad if I want to eat that in 10-degree weather, where I can eat it, and let’s be honest. I eat REALLY slowly. (I chew each bite probably 20-30 times.)
So, what’s the point of bothering with it? Just fast. Problems solved.
Except…your brain consumes most of the glucose you ingest (I think it’s 90% if I remember correctly). Your brain’s a gas-guzzling, 1975 Plymouth Duster with a 340 engine. I had one of those, by the way…they burn a gallon of gas just by you starting the damn engine!)
I was hardly interested in the training material and began wondering if I was absolutely crazy for taking the job. I also started having these mini-anxiety attacks during the training that I still remember vividly. I started to believe I had a condition in my brain that was keeping the information from registering. I couldn’t grasp half of what I was reading and had to read it twice. The test was scored, so it wasn’t like I could just wing it.
Is there something REALLY wrong with me!?! Is my brain ageing and I’m unable to learn new facts!?!
I learned a few interesting pieces of information here and there, so I knew it wasn’t MY BRAIN. I just wasn’t interested in terrorism procedures, nor Codes Blue/Red/Orange/Silver/Grey/Amber/Clear/ Internal/External Triage and Rapid Response Team. Nor did I care about sexual harassment, HIPAA guidelines, and dangerous chemicals. I just wanted to WORK.
Yes, hospitals are high risk for all of those topics and I absolutely understand the necessity of teaching this information. However, most of this will be covered in individual departments as they stated and are completely irrelevant to my specific job. In the kitchen, I’m not dealing with 95% of the chemicals they need you to read about in these lessons…we have our own set of poisons I’ll need to learn once I’m in my position. If there’s a terrorist threat, we’re all going to panic and forget what we learned anyway.
I worked in insurance companies and Dr’s offices for years, so I understand HIPAA guidelines. (Which is why I won’t disclose the location, name, nor any specifics about the hospital nor patients.)
I was advised the job was (4)10-hour days, 7:30 am-6 pm. Sounds perfect!
I always begged for 4-day work weeks when I was in corporate America, just to get the week over faster. I mean, you get 3 days off in a row! You’re already at work for 8 hours anyway, so what are another 2 hours added on to that? You’ll save gas and time from the extra day you’ll be off! I finally got the dream schedule!
Let’s start with the comical parts of the job…
There was standard attire I had to wear, and they would provide the costume…er, I mean, uniform for me. I get it. You need to quickly differentiate staff from patients and visitors for security and health reasons. We looked like waitstaff, which also seems more professional to everyone. There we are, darning our little uniform shirts, pants, aprons, and (usually) hairnets.
Because I refused vaccination and the flu shot, I had to wear a facemask at all times. (“Unless I was in the bathroom stall, I was told…only then “could I take it off.”)
Oh, yeah…that reminds me of something funny…
The first day I worked, I thought half the men had scars on their faces. ”What is WRONG with the safety in this kitchen!?!” Finally, I realized that ball of hair on the floor (reminiscent of unmentionable hairs), wasn’t actually hair…it was a hairnet!
I also realized those weren’t scars—all the men had hairnets on their faces! Even on their eyebrows. (?) For just a moment, envision a hairnet pulled down over your eyelashes and a separate one worn around your chin and upper lip. I still have no idea how those things stayed on properly.
Some of the kitchen staff took the hairnets off once they left the kitchen, only to put them back on as soon as they returned a few minutes later. (Hospital guidelines are understandably strict and the second you enter that kitchen a hairnet must be on your head.)
Seriously, why take it off when you’ll be in and out of the kitchen 9,000 times each day!?! And why wear the pubic-hair-looking version instead of a blue bonnet hairnet? The latter protects food more and I want everyone to CLEARLY know I have that thing on! Wouldn’t you choose the blue vs clear one?
Rob loved the hairnet and face mask, to be honest. He called me Dr Feelgood when I came out from work every day if I forgot to take them off before getting in the car. That ended up being the only source of amusement once I was on the floor and working.
And now the “fun” part of the job…all the lessons!
I’ll start with the positive lessons first. You’ll find some inspiring pieces in each section, but this is the part I try to focus on most when I reminisce about the job.
- I learned I’m too sensitive to deal with patients in that capacity. Maybe I have too much empathy (is that possible?), or maybe I’m a wuss. But I just couldn’t handle seeing grown adults confined like that. Nor could I see young kids cooped up in a private room with doors always closed.
- I learned about fat shaming and that perhaps, just perhaps, I needed to reevaluate my own viewpoints on obesity. No, I don’t call people fat, nor do I think some of the horrible things I learned in my training. But perhaps that 500-pound person DIDN’T know the point of no return like I assume they did. Perhaps they DIDN’T know how to put down the Twinkie. Perhaps I was wrong.
- There was a lovely patient with fresh fruits and veggies brought in daily. I loved seeing the array of various peppers, apples, and truly healthy foods on their bedside tray. I knew they weren’t eating the majority of what I was delivering, thankfully.
- I learned the hard reality of what Dr’s and nurses face on the floors and in the rooms. Sort of. I’m still looking at it all as an outsider, but what an amazing eye-opener it was. I merely have to push meals in and out of rooms and talk to patients for a few minutes…they constantly monitor, protect, and maintain balance in a very delicate system. NOTHING in a hospital moves slowly. Everything is on a very tight schedule and every single staff member must work within those tight guidelines. You would never know the intricacies as a visitor.
- What great exercise! They told me in the interview that I’d be walking 2-3 miles per day. WRONG! My walking app calculated 7-8 miles per day of walking at a pretty quick pace.
- You may never feel more appreciated than you will in a hospital. Patients and their family are truly grateful to see you. Better yet? You may be the only smile they get that day. In a fast-paced environment, smiles can quickly be forgotten. I was new and hadn’t been broken yet. Despite wearing a face mask, my eyes smiled large enough for everyone to know I was a cheery lil spitfire.
- I am so grateful for my yoga training and practice! When you’re walking that much, every moment of sitting should be utilized to pull out every chair yoga move you’ve ever learned. Maybe I even taught a couple of staff members to stretch!?!
- Be grateful for your health. It’s a gift you and I definitely take for granted. It can slip away gradually or in a mere second.
- They have thought of it all in these places. (“They” being hospital administrators.) I happened to notice an oversized car during one of my rounds and couldn’t figure out why it was there. A plaything for bored adults? A way to entertain teenagers or young adults when they visit their family? No, no, it’s for physical therapy and rehab for motor skills!
- You probably underestimate the power of your job, regardless of the field you’re in. You’re more than just a cog in the wheel. I can’t emphasize the power a patient’s smile has nor their excitement when you bring their first solid meal in days. YOU MATTER.
- They have Reiki available for patients. My first Reiki instructor in Florida started a caring hands program at the hospital she worked for and I believe it’s still in motion. It’s nice to see that 15 years later, the movement has gained some momentum.
- We served over 6,000 meals per week to patients alone. That’s over 300 patients being fed PER MEAL, or almost 1,000 trays of food per day! (Truth be told, I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but I found it fascinating to be a part of that system!)
While these lil tidbits aren’t the worst of what I encountered, they were a constant daily reminder of my frustrations with our society and the issues we have surrounding food.
- Those are the hardest 10-hour days I’ve ever worked. I have NO idea how medical professionals do 2x those hours on little-to-no sleep, in extremely intense situations, and still manage to take care of patients. It’s no wonder mistakes happen so easily, now that I think about it (it’s even more of a wonder that it doesn’t happen more often).
Do you know after a few days of sleep deprivation, you’re brain literally functions as if you were intoxicated? After a 10-hour day, there’s little to nothing you can coherently do. I can’t imagine pulling longer shifts. I came home, made dinner in about 30 minutes, ate, and zombified myself.
- The days aren’t 4 in a row, because the staff complained to HR. The schedule is created so that every employee works no more than 3 days in a row. When I analyzed the schedule further, I realized most people never have 2 days off in a row. So much for long weekends of accomplishing goals!
I’m sure your body adjusts to the scheduling, given the amazingly adaptable creatures we humans are. That being said, the day after you work is ALWAYS a recovery day, regardless of how many days you’ve been “on” shift. Imagine working Monday and Tuesday, recovering on Wednesday, working Thursday and Friday, recovering on Saturday and having Sunday off to do what you need to do on your business. Can you see how (anti-) productive that is?
- Hospital food is hardly healing. It was incredibly hard for me to give people food that’s prepackaged and soulless. I took every opportunity I had to study the kitchen, for business and personal reasons. The chef has no creativity in what’s being offered, for obvious reasons. Why he carried in special knives every day was beyond me…I never saw any use for them.
This was part of what led to the realization that I would NEVER be able to make a significant impact on the food being served there. My job was clear and after 2 weeks, I saw what people who’d been there for 40 years (how…why!?!) did. I would merely be a paper pusher. Paper in the form of a plate or cup, for those on liquid diets. As I stated to the owner of a café here, my job has been in preventative care for the last decade. It’s hard for me to give people foods I knew were dangerous for them.
- People want what they want, regardless of their health status. You’d think being in a hospital would change how people eat, even if it was just for the duration of their stay. Nah…as I watched a co-worker popping gummy bears into her mouth, she stated it perfectly. “You’d think people would realize what they’re eating contributes to how long they’re in here, but they don’t see the connection.” Yes, that was admittedly the most hysterical moment I had during my tenure there. Irony at its best…
- I had to wear a mask at all times. If you hate bringing attention to yourself, this may be the worst part of the uniform. Especially when you’re in the 1% of the hospital staff wearing a mask…everyone knows YOU didn’t get the flu shot. Do they wonder why? Do they fear my germs because I didn’t get the shot? (Insert Paranoia.)
Honestly, for me, the worst part was that it makes it hard for people to hear me. As I said earlier, you can hear a smile and see it in someone’s eyes—so they knew I was smiling IF their eyesight was good enough. Regardless, those masks can be tricky to breathe in sometimes!
- The staff has to wear (what I call) a hazmat suit in certain rooms. You learn to look for signs on every door, to determine how you need to approach the patient. For the safety of some patients and staff, some single-patient rooms have the door often partially- or fully-closed. If a sign is present, you need to determine how much of a hazmat suit you need to wear. In some instances, you just put on a gown and gloves. In the worst-case scenario, eye shield, and masks were also required (these were the moments I was grateful I wore a mask, so it was one less thing to put on and take off!). These precautions are a) to keep the patient from getting your germs or b) to keep the staff from being exposed to whatever the patient has. You never know which it is, just as you never know why someone is in the hospital.
Now, remember, everyone in the hospital is on a timeframe from the second they enter the building. Every second spent putting on a gown, gloving, degloving and disrobing, putting on goggles or a mask, is a second lost doing the rest of your job.
- You have to sanitize your hands EVERY. Time. You. Leave. A. Patients. Room. I am NOT a fan of hand sanitizer, for multiple reasons. (I even wrote about it here.) Not only does it dry out your skin, but the chemicals in those antibacterial products are more dangerous than the germs we’re trying to avoid. Despite my own personal feelings, I obviously followed protocol—it goes without saying that I won’t endanger my health, my family’s health, nor the health of any patient by not diminishing exposure to bacteria. But every swipe of sanitizing foam was a little reminder of yet another compromise I was making in this profession. That’s a lot of daily reminders.
(Precious, isn’t it? It goes on before you enter the room and comes off before you leave.)
- I saw the firsthand effects of not being preventative. It’s one thing to watch your family die of preventable diseases, as I did. There’s a level of compassion that partly blinds you to what’s happening. When it’s a stranger, there’s obviously less compassion. There’s also a greater level of helplessness when it’s a complete stranger. What can you REALLY say to them?
Imagine the scene for a moment. You’ve prepared a tray that has a slices of pepperoni pizza, canned soda, baked custard, chicken nuggets, and “baked” fries (just because they’re baked in our kitchen doesn’t mean they weren’t fried prior to being frozen and delivered to us!). You put on the robe, gloves, and mask because there’s a caution sign on the door. You put the food on the bedside tray, knowing the patient has been there for months. You walk out of the room, remove the gown, gloves, mask, and move on to the next room.
No one says “no” to the patient’s request for this meal, for a variety of reasons. We’ve created a society where you rarely CAN say no. Even when it’s a matter of life and death and that food is killing your patient.
- Even in a hospital, people maintain the very eating habits that put them there. If I’m heading into a room with berry-flavoured water, coffee with 10 sugars and 10 creamers, brown sugar for the oatmeal and I find Dominoes pizza boxes in the room, it’s hard to not understand how the patient ate before entering the hospital.
Here’s a sad example of what I witnessed on my last day. A patient’s diet changed from cardiac to a regular diet (which has no restrictions). We had just served lunch and the tray was pulled and replaced with their new diet order. I delivered a cheeseburger, fries and whoopie pie that replaced the baked custard, fruit, and chicken salad sandwich we had delivered 15 minutes beforehand. When I set it down, one of the children proudly commented, “that’s much more like what she’ll eat!”
- There’s a HUGE lack of communication with the staff in hospitals when it comes to various job duties. The nurse doesn’t know the role of the kitchen staff vs the dietician, for starters. There’s no connector who explains the roles everyone plays and what’s needed/expected/why things happen in an x/y/z manner. I listen to everyone with a different view because I’ve worked for Dr’s and I know nurses. I understand the struggle they go through with patients and how difficult it is to keep them medicated, get them healthy, and try and feed them. Alas, my role as a connector and Quality Analyst wasn’t what I was hired for! The problem is, who’s ultimately suffering because of the lack of communication? It’s not the staff, I can assure you.
- I’d guess 75% of all patients in a hospital are diabetic, then cardio diabetic. I had to assemble upwards of 200 trays per day…I saw the dietary restrictions on every one of those meal orders that came across my station. The sickest people in a hospital are usually morbidly obese, which is one of the conditions that fall under metabolic syndrome. Diabetes and cardiac diseases are other conditions that fall under metabolic syndrome. Sadly, I quickly learned that left untreated, a good number of the patients on a cardiac/diabetic diet would soon add a renal diet to their list of restrictions. Let’s be very honest for a moment…your kidneys are usually one of the last organs to shut down. The point? DIABETES CAN BE REVERSED IN A VERY SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME. If hospitals were able to regulate food properly, these simple diseases would be reversed.
- What would my family or I do in a hospital for a prolonged period of time? Despite the knowledge I have and my fairly-strict eating protocol, no hospital would follow my dietary rules. I’m not saying they didn’t have plant-based meal options—they certainly had veggie burgers, potatoes, brown rice, salads, and cooked veggies available for every meal.
But let’s say for a moment my mother was still alive and was in the hospital again. Knowing what I know now, I’d feed her an extremely low-fat, low-protein, higher-carbohydrate diet. (She was diabetic and had serious liver diseases, which would require a diet like that.) The hospital would limit her carb count to 65 grams per meal and would look something like this: 1/3 cup grain, ½ cup beans, 1 small piece of fruit, a piece of meat, and ½ – 1 cup of non-starchy veggies (such as broccoli). I’d be feeding my mother at least 2-3 cups of fresh vegetables per meal, with a serving of carbohydrates, no dairy or meat, 1 teaspoon max of oil or fat (preferably nuts instead of oil), and 1-2 servings of fresh fruit.
- There’s a very real fear of knowing people are so vulnerable you could kill them with a meal. Now I’m used to this reality, being in the food business…a food allergy can send a healthy person to the hospital in an instant. In a hospital when there’s already a compromised immune or systemic issue? Your fear is heightened 20-fold.
- The biggest frustration with all the dietary choices patients make? It’s not completely their fault! Every room I entered had a TV on at all hours of the day, spewing commercials of cleverly- styled fast-food abominations and food shows that display artery-clogging, deep-fried, buttered, cheesy, genetically-modified foodstuff. If you’re bored, sick or dying, and are left alone all day, what would you crave after watching this shit…a salad!?! Our system is seriously broken.
Forget it. If you’re still with me, fasten your seatbelt a bit tighter. These are the types of lessons that gave me anxiety at night, caused nightmares about returning to work, and ultimately led me to resign after literally 2 days of working. I don’t know how people get used to these aspects…
(If you’re curious about the math of it all, I had a day of training, 2 days of working before resigning, and I had to give a week’s notice to fulfil my contract.)
- I had to deliver food to a patient with visible struggles in communicating. They tried repeatedly, so I stayed, did what I could to make them comfortable for a few minutes, and smiled more sincerely than I ever had to a complete stranger. The vision of them still brings tears to my eyes…
- It’s devastating to watch so many people crying and so sick. Patients, family, friends…is there a shrink on staff to help the Dr’s and nurses cope with this? How do you get used to it without all your mirror neurons making you cry just because they are!?!
- I had no idea the elderly could be so bruised. The elderly women I have known and do know, are anything but fragile. In the training course, they tested me on knowing regular bruising vs elderly abuse. I never expected to see it on the first day of working on the floor. I walked into rooms with tender little elders with bruised faces and arms. Not from abuse mind you, but just because they fell. (You can tell by the types of wounds and other factors.)
- You have to be sensitive to how truly vulnerable these people are. I don’t just mean their health. I mean their mental and emotional vulnerability. They’re constantly looked at by strangers, prodded by staff, judged, and their doors are always open. They’re just there with their urine, farts, blood, coughing, and whatever else we all happen to witness. They have been stripped of their dignity and privacy.
- When you’re post-op (when you just come out of surgery), your diet is clear liquid with no dairy. You basically get water, broth, and juice…hopefully, you’re not on a diet that restricts liquids, which I did unfortunately see. Once you can tolerate that without vomiting or other side effects, we move you to a full liquid diet. This consists of thicker liquids such as milk, Ensure, “Nectar-thick” or “Honey-Thick” drinks and creamed soups. Your next step is a sandwich of some kind and soups with actual substance in them. Sodium and dairy are gradually added in, as you can see. The sicker you are, the more restricted the diet is from dairy, salt, fat. I dare question you as a healthy person, why wouldn’t you follow this diet and live a life of prevention instead of reaction?
- We forget how grateful we should be for our health. While this seems like it should be in the first section, I’d implore you to volunteer at a hospital and see how fast you thank your body. The reality is that some of these people are very near death and you never know just how close. Looking at them lying there is very hard, no matter what age they are. No one deserves to be lying in a hospital bed at any age and most of these conditions could have been avoided!
- Ever heard of a Comfort Cart? I didn’t until I delivered one. It’s a cart with pastries, coffee, tea, and fruit. It’s delivered to families when their loved one is about to pass away, so they can stay in the room until that final breath.
- How about a Guardian Tray? (It’s not a walker that assists those with mobility challenges.) These trays are assembled on Styrofoam instead of the standard heavy plastic trays we normally used, have no utensils, the meals must be able to be hand-held, and are usually sandwiches, vegetable sticks with dressing, and milk. These are given to patients who came in under extreme psychiatric conditions and a risk of leaving them with plastic or metal cutlery could prove fatal.
- Expect to see things you never expected. In just 5.5 days, I walked in on a newborn being breastfed, exposed genitalia, and had a coworker experience her first body bag being zipped up.
I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world. Despite the utter frustration and anxiety I faced in the 5.5 days I held this position, it fueled my passion for helping people more than ever. It gave me a sense of pride for the health I have, a sense of gratitude for the knowledge I have, and deepened my resolve to serve.
If you’ve stayed with me to the end of this, thank you. As I’m writing this closing paragraph, I see how long this tale is. I never expected 5 days to create so much material, but I appreciate your interest. I can only hope my journey inspires you to do what you can to become healthier and healthier so that none of these bullet points ever become a story someone else’s sharing about YOU. It’s taken me nearly a month to put this on paper…
Carpe diem, my friend…please make every choice count towards your health and not just your taste buds.