Dinner with the Dying

Hospital food has unappetizing rep; Gottlieb wants to change all that

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By David Hammond

Last month, Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park sent me an email announcing the new "At Your Request" meal service program, which features menu items like fajitas, grilled chicken Caesar salad, ziti with marinara sauce and apple crisp.

"Nutritious and appetizing meal selections that patients will actually eat and enjoy are  vital to the healing process," said Trisha Cassidy, president, Loyola  Gottlieb. "Dining is just one of the many areas we are giving freedom to patients to put them in control and help make their stay healthier and happier." 

Recently, I was visiting my very sick aunt at a hospital in Florida. She was once a normal-sized woman, but had shrunk to below 90 pounds.  I could see the fragile bones in her hand as she reached out to hold mine.

It was dinner time. The nurse came in, put down the tray, lifted the lid, and murmured “Yuck.”

I actually whacked the nurse playfully on her arm and asked, half-laughing, “Hey, have you ever tasted this stuff?” The nurse said “No, I haven’t.” I could tell she was embarrassed to admit that.

My aunt had been served what was called “ravioli,” but it didn’t look like ravioli. The pasta part had been pureed and scooped into a bland mound; even less appetizing was the meat sauce and filling, ground up together and plopped on the plate. The two soft half-globes – beige and orange-red –  were like no food I’d ever eaten.

There was also pureed zucchini, a green mass looking a little like lime Jell-O, but with so much corn starch that it was impossible to eat a bite without an immediate sip of water to lubricate the tasteless pulp on the way down.

My aunt had a tentative nibble and declared definitively, “I don’t want any of this.”

The nurse and I looked at each other and dug in.

“Vile,” I said, after taking a little bite of each item.

“Vile,” the nurse agreed, putting down her spoon.

The food had virtually no texture, much like pablum, and a lack of seasoning rendered everything disturbingly taste-free.

The doctors said my aunt was “failing to thrive,” but it’s hard to “thrive” when good food is gone from one’s life.  There was no way the hospital would modify the menu, though during that trip I did find out just how much my aunt liked chocolate. I sent her a box every month for the rest of her life. I wanted to her to eat something that would give her a little happiness, that would fuel her enthusiasm to live.

Does Gottlieb serve food that makes one want to live to eat another day? I plan to sample the food there soon. I’ll let you know what I discover.

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