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It’s a recipe for recovery: Mix one state-of-the-art cafeteria with a team of dedicated chefs and dietitians. Add a dash of innovation and a pinch of creativity. Voilá! Dinner is served.
For the past few weeks, food has had little appeal for 11-year-old Alaina Coleman. While undergoing her second bone marrow transplant for acute myeloid leukemia, she has spent many days as an inpatient at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Meanwhile, employees in the hospital’s Clinical Nutrition department have been working diligently to ensure that Alaina obtains the nutrition she needs to help her regain her health.
Proper nutrition is important for all children, but especially for those undergoing treatment at St. Jude. During treatment, children’s immune systems may be compromised. When their white blood counts are low, they are especially vulnerable to infection. During that time, the bacteria in many foods can be hazardous.
“When their counts are low, we have to make sure they stay away from rice, tea, strawberries, soft-serve ice cream from bulk machines, and other foods that do not harm you and me, but that could be very serious for the patients,” says Registered Dietitian Kathryn Alexander.
Early in her treatment, Alaina wanted a smoothie, but not just any smoothie. “She wanted a mango kiwi strawberry smoothie,” Alexander recalls. “Because her counts were low, she couldn’t have fresh strawberries, so we cooked them and then blended them with the mango and kiwi. We made the special smoothie that she wanted, and it worked out well.”
Thanks to a $16 million gift from Sterling Jewelers Inc., St. Jude has enhanced its ability to cater to kids like Alaina. The Kay Kafe, which opened in the summer of 2008, boosts the hospital’s ability to provide variety and efficiency in meal preparations and delivery.
“Our primary goal is to get our kids to eat. It’s the most natural thing for them to do,” says Karen Smith of Clinical Nutrition. “The new cafeteria has given us a world of opportunity in enhancing our patients’ oral intake with more options for healthy, nutritious and culturally diverse foods.”
The Clinical Nutrition program at St. Jude participates in both daily patient care and research. The nutritional components of the hospital’s protocols emphasize the dietitian’s role in the multidisciplinary team treating patients with catastrophic diseases.
When the hospital was constructed, St. Jude founder Danny Thomas decided the cafeteria would be the central gathering place where employees, patients, their families, researchers and clinicians could dine together under one roof. That model continues today, with a stellar kitchen and dining area that feels more like a chic restaurant than a hospital cafeteria.
Children come to St. Jude for treatment from every state and more than 70 countries. Hospital employees hail from more than 80 nations. Forgoing the one-size-fits-all approach to cafeteria food, St. Jude embraces its diverse population and caters to its hospital family by offering a wide variety of cuisines. If kids or staff are hungry for four types of southern barbecue on a smoker, Indian biryani rice or authentic Chinese dishes, specially trained chefs make it to order. In the new cafeteria, patients can also enjoy ethnic food choices such as Mediterranean salads or Italian pastas and gelato.
It is important that the St. Jude Clinical Nutrition staff understand different cultures and eating habits so that dietitians are prepared and knowledgeable about their patients.
“When patients say they don’t like something, I know what they mean,” says Terezie Mosby, a registered dietitian. “I have lived in several different countries, and the same food might taste totally different here than it does in another part of the world.”
Children also participate in such fun activities as make-your-own-pizza and decorate-a-cupcake events.
“Our patients are constantly having someone running tests or giving them medications, which often leaves them feeling less comfortable than before,” says Miles McMath, senior executive chef. “We have a chance to do something that the patient will enjoy and look forward to.”
When children go to the hospital for treatment, they leave familiarity and predictability behind—along with their toys, friends and pets. Dropped into an alien landscape, kids yearn for the comforts of home. Sure, they have access to the latest medical treatments, but what would really make them feel better is mom’s chicken soup or grandma’s special pot roast. At most hospitals, that craving goes unfulfilled. But not at St. Jude.
St. Jude clinicians recognize that children respond best to treatment when they have access to the foods they love. So, if dad’s macaroni and cheese is what the patient craves, that’s exactly what is served. The hospital’s dietitians and chefs often replicate patients’ favorite dishes by using recipes obtained from the children’s families.
Dietitians may visit local grocery stores to purchase ingredients for special orders.
“Most hospitals are not going to do that,” says Alaina’s mother, Ginger Coleman. “I like the fact that they care about what the children want and do everything they can to get it for them.”
In an area dedicated to preparing meals for inpatients, dietary technicians, chefs and cooks prepare creative meals while upholding the highest food safety and sanitation standards. All staff in this area have undergone extensive training on preparing low-bacteria diets and meeting other specialized needs of patients with weakened immune systems.
“The treatments that St. Jude patients undergo can cause appetite loss, nausea and mouth sores,” says Chef John Gilbreath. “By catering to the children’s cravings, we can help them stay well nourished, which is essential in helping them fight infection.”
The inpatient room service food preparation area includes a Turbo chef oven, a commercial grade food steamer, a grilling station and a meal assembly area.
“The new cooking area in the kitchen has helped us ensure that we get meals out to our patients in a timely manner—usually 30 minutes from the time patients order to the time the meal is delivered to their rooms,” says LaWanda Payne of the Food Services department.
Alaina and her family appreciate the effort that goes into providing her with appetizing, nutritious food. But she still longs for the day when she can eat supper in her own kitchen.
“I know it will take a little while,” her mom says. “But we’ve been through this before and made it, and we’ll get through it again.”
Reprinted from Promise Autumn 2008
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