As the threat of Hurricane Harvey intensified over southeast Texas, so did the efforts of the MD Anderson Cancer Center staff to serve and protect patients. Among those providing crucial but sometimes overlooked support were a few dozen food service employees.
Eleven members of the Room Service team made sure the 538 patients staying in the hospital for treatment were fed and fed well.
At the same time, a slightly larger group of Dining Services staff members prepared and served meals and snacks for more than 1,300 doctors, nurses, employees and patients’ family members.
“The kitchen served as the hospital’s heart and soul during the storm,” says Khalil Saadiq, senior executive chef of Dining Services. “We were dealing with guests in stress, whether they were patients or staff. What everybody wanted was a meal, which provided their relief, their sense of normalcy, their comfort. And the entire food service staff came together and did what was necessary to provide that.”
Over five days in late August, everyone worked multiple shifts, pausing only for a few bites to eat, a few minutes to check in with their families, a few hours sleep. Kelly Shattuck, who supervised the Room Service team, learned by text message that on Sunday morning her home had washed away in the storm. All her possessions were gone.
“I had to put that in the back of my mind,” she says. “We just had to keep everyone fed, and live in the moment. Our motto was, ‘Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.’ We just kept saying that for five straight days.”
Focused on patients' needs
Just before the hurricane tore into Houston, the weather was eerily calm. That Friday night, Shattuck, evening sous chef Jeremy Coons and nine other Room Service staffers decided to spend the night at the hospital anyway. They knew they could get home, Shattuck explains. But making it back to work the next day was iffy.
As Coons says, “This job is about taking care of someone who can’t take care of himself."
From Saturday through Wednesday, the hardy crew fed hundreds of patients three times a day. That involved cooking, cleaning up and making sure the patients received their prescribed diets on trays that were as close as possible to perfect.The team also coordinated with the call center staff, which took calls from patients ordering their meals for the day. Two other groups, the transporters and the wait staff, delivered the trays to the appropriate floors, then served them to the patients. Four captains supervised that process, then pitched in to do a host of other jobs, too.
“What people did was just phenomenal,” Shattuck says.
Both Shattuck and Coons came of age in the food service industry. Shattuck, 57, started working at McDonald’s right out of high school, but slowly made her way to hospital kitchens within the University of Texas System.
Patients needed her time and attention, she figured, and she enjoyed working with other food service pros who felt the same desire to serve.
She will always be grateful to the MD Anderson team that performed so well under such difficult circumstances. She also remembers their responses when she told them she’d lost her home.
“Don’t cry, Miss Kelly,” they said, wrapping their arms around her.
Coons, 34, started out at Sonic restaurants after high school, joined the Army, then went to work in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas. His next stop was MD Anderson, which he much prefers.
It’s not just that the cancer patients are more likely to be law-abiding, a fact he appreciates. Sometimes, with food, he can ease their pain.
Take a little thing like a banana split. It’s not much in the scheme of things, Coons says, but in a day filled with cancer treatments, it looms large.
“If they want a banana split, then they’re getting that banana split,” he says.
Planning meals that could stretch
For the Dining Services team, the Friday building up to the storm was a fairly normal day. So was Saturday. But Sunday, when many parts of the Houston area were flooding, Saadiq was grateful that 12 members of his staff had decided to spend the night at the hospital.
To make the best use of their supplies, the team closed all the cafes around the hospital except the main dining room. They pooled all the groceries and started planning meals that could stretch.
They served a lot of pasta dishes, a lot of casseroles, lasagna, and rice dishes, all comforting and delicious.
“The cooks deserve a great amount of recognition, but I don’t want to overlook the chasers, receiving clerks and many others who went above and beyond their job descriptions to help,” Saadiq says.
Like Shattuck and Coons, Saadiq, 42, has also spent most of his professional life in the food service industry. The Florida native, who is no stranger to hurricanes, served four years in the military, then attended culinary school.
A lot of people are critical of hospital food, he says. “They think of it as not flavorful and not creative. But flavorful and creative – those are the things we do well.
”As soon as Frank Tortorella was able to leave his flooded neighborhood, he made his way to the cancer center, headed for the kitchen and pitched in. The vice president for Clinical Support Services says he wasn’t alone – other employees from various departments were offering their assistance, too.
“We were so honored to help the food service staff in any way we could,” Tortorella says. “The teamwork was amazing and the self-sacrifice was truly inspirational. I told them, ‘You guys are the real heroes. Thank you so much.’”