They don’t provide direct patient care, but what they do as UTMB and Morrison Healthcare Food and Nutrition Services employees plays a major role in helping patients—from children to seniors—stay healthy and recover from medical procedures and illnesses.
I meet up with the two women on the sixth floor of the Clinical Services Wing, where the hospital’s kitchen recently relocated. I feel like I’ve just entered through the back door of a popular restaurant. There’s nonstop hustle and bustle as tickets with food requests shoot out of little printers, and chefs at three different pods grab them quickly to fulfill the orders. Small teams of workers form an assembly line to load each patient’s tray with diet-appropriate items before putting them onto a cart for delivery. About 550 trays go out each day, depending on the hospital’s census.
“We start a timer for 13 minutes once the first tray is loaded onto the cart, and when the timer goes off, I take the cart out to deliver the patient meals, otherwise you risk the food going cold,” said Carson, whose pedometer shows she walks nine to 10 miles a day delivering trays to all parts of the hospital. “It’s a constant race to get the meals to patients in less than 45 minutes. But I love it, and I’m getting the exercise I need as a diabetic. When I started here, I was on three shots of insulin a day—and now I’m not taking insulin anymore.”
While I listen in awe of the distance Carson covers each day and the health benefits she’s received as a result, Lightbourn passes by on her way to take bedside food orders from patients who need assistance or are critically ill.
It’s hard not to like Lightbourn, who is a senior at Texas A&M University at Galveston double majoring in marine biology and marine fisheries. She has an infectious smile and makes patients laugh easily—some patients even expect Lightbourn to say “awesomesauce” each time she takes their order. She is clearly customer focused and takes extra care to ensure that her patients’ orders are taken correctly.
You’ll always see a tablet computer in one of Lightbourn’s hands. She uses the portable device to take breakfast, lunch and dinner orders without having to run back to the kitchen. The high-tech tablets tie into the call center software (myDining) for ordering. Lightbourn can even see what the call center agents see while she is on the floors.
“Today, I’ll see about 58 patients (on average, depending on census), twice each to get their breakfast, lunch and dinner requests,” said Lightbourn. “The tablet I keep with me has software containing the menu and will let me know if a patient has any special dietary restrictions or needs. If I have further questions, I work with the nursing staff to make sure the patient receives proper nutrients.”
Back in the kitchen with Carson, my eyes and nose wander to a nearby meal prep area. I take a peek over one of the chef’s shoulders and can’t believe my eyes—it’s pan-seared Mahi Mahi and it looks delicious.
Carson explains that the gourmet fish is one of the menu items for “Dining on Call,” a new program launched in October that is comparable to hotel room service. Instead of three scheduled meals delivered to patients whether they are hungry or not, the new program aims to put the patient in charge of their meals, allowing them to order what they want when they want by providing them a restaurant-style menu and talking to a call-center agent who can assist in placing meal orders.
I scan the room-service menu and my prior beliefs about hospital food fly right out the window. I make a note to self that hospital food is not just Jell-O and comfort foods—and regret not eating lunch before I arrived.
Once the cart is full, Carson, who is part of a team of eight wait staff who deliver trays, heads back out to make deliveries. I follow her as she pushes the cart to the cardiac care and pediatric units, and we pass Lightbourn again.
The ladies joke that they see each other “about 40 times a day,” as one takes orders and the other delivers food.
“She’s awesome,” Lightbourn said referring to Carson. “I see her on every floor that I’m on, and I’m like, ‘I’m tired of seeing you!’ [laughs]. She’s always right behind me.”
Although the job can be tiring by the end of the day—they work 12-hour shifts from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and sometimes feel like slumping over a cart while they wait for the elevator—they both say they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I absolutely love my job,” said Carson. “I’m 63, and I finally feel like I’ve found my niche. I love interacting with patients and doing whatever I can to help them. Sometimes just bending your ear a little bit and listening goes a long way. We’re the highlight of the day for a lot of people.”
Lightbourn agrees. “I try to be the bright part of our patients’ days and make them laugh or smile. Sometimes they may not be doing very well or aren’t super excited to see me, but we try our best and that’s all we can do.”