*****Here's a little sample from my current book project, Food Lady: What I Learned about Life and Death Working at a Hospital. I had hopes of releasing it before the end of the year, but my new job has slowed down my progress. Still on the fire, though, simmering instead of boiling, but on the stove and not the shelf!
***names have been changed****
“How do you do it, Tara?” I asked when I had gotten word that I was hired and had a start date. A perpetual worrier, I was already fretting about the skill needed to talk to the sick and dying about something as intimate as food choices. I imagined mangled bodies deluged with tubes and wires. As the patient clung to life, there I’d be, the food lady asking what they want to eat as they face down the beast of mortality. How would I do it?
I’m a people person and can talk to just about anyone—just ask my kids who have been mortified more than once by my habit of striking up in-depth conversation with total strangers—but the random people I take an interest in talking with are healthy and upright. They’re not lying in a hospital bed with some crazy-ass disease ravaging their body. (Except for that one lady I met at a clothing boutique who disclosed that she had a bladder infection and that peeing felt like liquid fire burning up her va-jay-jay. TMI, lady, TMI).
I had known Tara for more than twenty years, back when our families lived in California. Her husband and my husband are musicians and used to play music together. It was a fluke that we all managed to end up settling down in Portland.
After being self-employed for a decade, I decided I needed a job with a steady paycheck. So I called Tara. She’d been working at the hospital for a few years. I hoped she’d have a good lead for me and she did. Her referral helped me get the interview, but I like to think that it was my magnetic personality that got me the job. And probably my humble attitude.
“How do you, well, you know … how do you talk to people who are sick and dying? How do you go in there and ask what they want to eat?”
“Oh Pam,” she said, “you will be surprised by what you’re gonna get used to. I’ve seen patients with gunshot wounds, and women who’ve been beat up. You’ll be helping all kinds of people. You will be fine.”
I held onto Tara’s words like an anchor as pre-new-job-jitters stormed up throughout my insides. And then the day came, my First Patient.
I had been training for about a week in the hospital’s basement kitchen when I was finally turned loose on my first unit. I was paired with Lorena, a petite Latina woman who used to be in banking before she got on at the hospital. I balanced the food tray with my left hand as we approached the patient’s room. Lorena had been schooling me for the last two hours about patient protocol. Now it was time to put it to practice.
I was just about to knock on the patient’s door when Lorena spoke up.
“This is a hard one. Maybe it shouldn’t be your first one. I can do it,” she offered reaching out for the food tray I was holding.
It was tempting to postpone the breaking of my food lady cherry. But I was committed. I had to learn and the best way to learn was by doing it.
“Thanks, but no. I need to learn how to serve patients. Might as well start with this one.”
“Ok,” she said sounding tentative. I wondered what she meant by hard and what kind of distressed, diseased human being was on the other side of the door. Time to find out.
“Room service. Can I come in?” I called out as I rapped on the door twice and opened it a couple of inches, just as I had watched Lorena do when I shadowed her during the first part of the shift,
“Yeah, come on in,” answered a male voice.
As I entered the room I saw what Lorena meant. The man in the hospital bed, not more than thirty years old, seemed to be missing part of his face … and hands. I’m no medical expert, but I’m guessing that he had a disagreement with an explosive and the explosive won. I hid my shock.
“Hi, I’m Pam. I have your lunch tray for you.”
I maneuvered the tray onto his hospital table, which let me tell you, was not an easy feat. It was cluttered with newspapers, bandages and also his urinal. I don’t know what weirded me out more: his half-blown face or half-full urinal. But I faked my way through it as if I was a seasoned diner waitress serving a long-time regular.
“Yeah, you’re right. That was a hard one,” told Lorena when we were back in the hallway. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” she said, which I quickly learned was typical for service workers in the hospital. We were not medical staff so we were not privy to what ailed the patient. Sometimes, I learned later, food workers might know the patient’s story, but for the most part, my coworkers and I usually had no idea.
I shifted quickly into learning how to serve all kinds of patients. It was just as Tara had predicted. I was surprised at what I was getting used to. Like private body parts. After seeing a few butt cracks from open hospital gowns, it no longer titillated me. Which mind you, I don’t mean to say ever titillated me, but I have to admit, I was curious what other people’s butt cracks looked like since I had such limited exposure up to that point in my life. Low-brow curiosity I know, but there you have it—my dark confession as a hospital food worker.