Monday, January 21, 2008

In Praise of Hospital Cafeterias

Well, Ella had her latest "procedure" on Friday and came out with flying colors. Unfortunately, the operation--a combination endoscopy and choledochoscopy with a side of general anaesthetic--didn't do jack, but at least she is no worse off than she was before. I intend to write far more about Ella and the delights of modern medicine, but that is for another day. For now, I want to offer some thanks to the wonderful little people, the ones who are there for us in our time of need, yet never get the appreciation they deserve. I'm not talking about the doctors, the nurses, or even the cute lil' candystripers. No, I'm talking about the hospital food service employees.

When I was a kid, it sometimes seemed like we lived at the hospital. Ella was born with a liver defect; for much of her first few years, we were constantly seeing doctors at Bethesda Naval Hospital. In fact, for her first few months, Ella and my mother actually lived at the hospital, in a nice, big room on the seventh floor. It was kind of like a hotel, if you ignored the IVs, the medical waste disposal bags, and the nurses dropping by at all hours. On the bright side, they had custom soap. On the downside, it was iodine-infused and had a nasty reddish-yellow color.

We lived about forty-five minutes away, in Fairfax, but my father would drive my sisters and I out there every evening. At first, we would hang out with the baby, but that would inevitably grow boring, so we started wandering all over the place. We'd bounce on the chairs in the huge atrium area, practice sneaking around the sensors on the automatic door openers, and raid the goodies that the chapel always put out. We came to know all the little hidden spaces in the hospital, got on a first-name basis with the cleaning staff, and made friends with most of the nurses. Best of all, we became huge fans of the cafeteria.

The hospital cafeteria was 1970's fern bar chic, with light-wood tables and dividers, recessed lighting, and hunter green walls. It felt like a sophisticated watering-hole, particularly when my father would hand me a few dollars and send me off to feed my sisters. The food was always frest and delicious. Most of it was prepared in-house, and the staff was generally cheery and glad to help. In fact, it was so good that, even years later, my father was still able to bribe us with a visit there. Many were the times that my sisters and I were convinced to be silent or bear up through a test with the promise that we would go to the cafeteria afterwards.

Another side of the cafeteria, which I'd forgotten until recently, was the fact that it was incredibly cheap. My parents used to hand me five or ten dollars to feed myself and my sisters, and I always brought back change. Admittedly, this was the early 1980's, and Bethesda was a military hospital, but it still had really good prices. To this day, I still feel like I'm being cheated when I have to pay more than a couple of bucks for lunch. My only excuse is that the hospital cafeteria trained me to be a cheapskate.

Fast forward a few years and I recently found myself hanging out at the Geisinger Clinic in Danville, Pennsylvania, waiting for my sister to come out of her procedure. The waiting room was filled with nervous people waiting for family members, and I felt like, at least in my case, misery doesn't necessarily love company. Having finished my book and the magazine that I packed, I decided to explore the hospital.

From previous visits, I already knew that Geisinger had two restaurants: an extensive, full-service cafeteria on the second floor and a smaller mini-restaurant on the first floor. Ella's friend Wiley, an older gentleman who used to work at the hospital, mentioned a lesser-known cafe on lower level 2, near the children's ward. He told me that it was the most pleasant place to eat, so I decided to put it to the test.

Wiley was absolutely right: the cafe was a sunny little spot with only about five or six tables. The food offerings were minimal, but were perfectly prepared, and the service was fantastic. I got an italian sausage sandwich with fried onions and red peppers, a cup of potato cheddar soup, and a piece of apple pie. Along with a bottle of water, the whole thing ran me about five or six bucks, and the cashier was incredibly cheerful. I found myself a clean table near a sunny window, savored my comfort food, and thought about how nice it is to have a hospital cafeteria when you need one.

I know that many hospitals aren't blessed with this kind of outstanding food service. Roanoke Memorial Hospital, where Georgia was born, didn't have a decent cafeteria, and the food service at Montgomery Regional Hospital consisted of a couple of cruddy candy dispensers. However, the two hospitals in which I've had to spend the most time have both had outstanding, reasonably-priced places to eat. While I don't really look forward to going back to the Geisinger hospital for Ella's next operation, I have to admit that I'm glad the cafeterias will be there.

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  • I'm glad of an update on Ella, but sorry the operation didn't help. She has been through so much more in her short life so far than most people ever have to endure.

    But there is always a silver lining, or in this case, a silverware lining, and how wonderful that you found it.

    Sending warmest wishes for Ella's quick recovery and a happy and healthy ending, finally, to all your family has been through.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, At January 21, 2008 at 11:14 PM  

  • If it makes a difference, I'll buy lunch for the next procedure. I'm rooting for all of you!

    By Blogger The CEO, At January 22, 2008 at 12:13 AM  

  • I hope she gets better soon... strongs to you and your family

    By Blogger Nosjunkie, At January 22, 2008 at 1:58 AM  

  • Hearts-
    Thanks for the warm thoughts and nice play on words. "Silverware lining" will give me smiles for a while!

    Thank you. As you sometimes note, a full stomach makes a lot of other things easier to bear.

    I appreciate the thoughts. I'm optimistic.

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 22, 2008 at 7:05 AM  

  • Hey, don't get too comfortable there...You're going to miss it when Ella gets out! Sending my best wishes for a quick recovery!

    By Blogger Claudia, At January 22, 2008 at 11:56 AM  

  • Claudia-
    I look forward to missing the food at Geisinger. If that makes sense...

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 23, 2008 at 12:04 AM  

  • I'm glad to have an update on Ella too. I swear I've been here several times .... no idea how I missed this yesterday.

    My eldest sister ... well, you and I have this in common. I know what you mean about the hospitals. We adapt, adjust to routines, but we don't want to live in it. We pray for good times again.

    I've kept you all in my thoughts and will continue to do so. {{HUG}} to you and your family, especially Ella.

    By Blogger Echomouse, At January 23, 2008 at 12:28 AM  

  • I'm glad she's okay. Sort of.

    I mean sort of okay rather than sort of glad - obviously...


    By Blogger Glamourpuss, At January 23, 2008 at 12:36 PM  

  • Good to hear Ella made it through the surgery. Sorry it didn't help. Fingers crossed this upcoming one helps.

    By Anonymous Meredith, At January 24, 2008 at 9:32 AM  

  • Echomouse-
    It's funny how the little things in the hospital start to mean a lot, you know?

    Thanks for the warm thoughts. Mangled as they are. (I'd add a smilie, but that's silly!)

    Thanks. Keep them crossed!

    By Blogger Crankster, At January 28, 2008 at 11:47 PM  

  • Savored and hospital food are not words I would have ever considered putting in the same sentence, but I have been fortunate not to have spent much time in medical facilities. You always seem able to find the silver lining and appreciate what small comforts life affords. All my best wishes to Ella and her optimistic brother.

    By Blogger Spellbound, At January 29, 2008 at 10:07 AM  

  • Thanks, Spellbound! Sometimes, you just have to take the joy where you can find it.

    By Blogger Crankster, At March 8, 2008 at 4:43 PM  

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