Comfort food: Food and Nutrition Services employees work around the clock to feed and comfort patients, families and staff

Oct 2, 2017, 11:55 AM by Shannon Porter
Angleton Danbury Food Services Manager Pam Buttaccio (with tray).
In the days leading up to Hurricane Harvey’s landfall, Pam Buttaccio began watching the weather channel a little more closely than normal.

On Aug. 23, Harvey had regenerated into a tropical depression about 535 miles southeast of Port O’Connor, Texas with maximum sustained winds of 35 mph. By Thursday, Harvey had strengthened into a Category 2 hurricane with winds as high as 100 mph.

Buttaccio started getting to work at 3 a.m. on the mornings of Aug. 24 and 25 to get a head start on preparations. She has only been working as the food service director at the Angleton Danbury Campus since May and wanted to make sure her area was as prepared as possible.

“There was no way of knowing how many people we would be feeding,” Buttaccio said. “We had to try our best to prepare for anything.”

By Aug. 26, the once-in-a-1,000-year storm moved into the Houston area, bringing thunderstorms, tornadoes and, in some areas, more than 50 inches of rain.

All three UTMB campuses not only became a safe place for patients, but for employees, too, who couldn’t return safely to their homes. That meant the limited food service staff from Angleton Danbury, Galveston and League City all were in charge of feeding breakfast, lunch and dinner to everyone sheltering at the hospital.

In Galveston, there was no interruption of food services during the storm. The patients at the hospital were able to continue to order meals just as they would any other day. On average, the food service employees at the Galveston Campus fed about 700 people for each meal during Hurricane Harvey.

At Angleton Danbury, Buttaccio and only one other employee from her staff were feeding all three meals, on average, to about 50 to 120 people a day from Friday to Sunday.

“I’m from a large Italian family, so I’m used to feeding big crowds, but nothing like this,” Buttaccio said. “It was all hands on deck.”

League City Food Services Manager Claudia GaribayAt the League City Campus, Claudia Garibay, food services director, was facing similar challenges. Flood waters were covering all major roadways, which made getting in and out of the hospital not only dangerous, but in some cases impossible for her employees.

With just four employees and herself, the food services team managed to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to the hospital’s more than 25 patients, their families and the 100-person staff.

Garibay and her staff, along with help from some Galveston Campus food service employees, worked around the clock, beginning as early as 3:45 a.m. to prepare food for the entire hospital, taking short breaks to sleep in different empty offices and rooms. Doctors and nurses had to do the same, she said.

Doug Cravey and Steve Mikitish, both food service employees, volunteered to head up to the League City Campus from Galveston to take supplies and help relieve staff. They both knew how badly the roads were flooded, but they also knew how essential it was to get supplies and additional staffing to League City.

Garibay didn’t even let her car getting flooded stop her from making it back to work after her one break during the almost full week she was at the hospital.

Maria Falen, one of the Galveston employees who volunteered to help in League City, along with the help of her husband and a large truck, helped get Garibay back to the League City Campus safely. Shaken but not deterred, they went straight back to preparing meals for the patients and staff all over again.

“We were not thinking about anything else besides concentrating on what we really needed to do,” Garibay said. “We had to do everything we could to take care of our patients and staff.”

At times, taking care of patients and staff also meant steering away from their usual job description, Buttaccio said.

“Sometimes people just wanted to talk,” she said. “In tragedy, I think some people just want to be heard. Everyone has their own personal story and a personal connection.”

Buttaccio and her staff worked to find ways to lift the spirits of everyone at the Angleton Danbury Campus, she said. Whether that was by playing music, making special desserts with whatever ingredients they had in the kitchen, or by simply smiling.

“We made cookies, banana pudding and strawberry cobbler,” Buttaccio said. “Who doesn’t want some chocolate when they’re feeling down?”

But despite the stress and constant worrying, Buttaccio said there was something incredible brought together by Hurricane Harvey—a sense of family.

“Usually the staff is busy and will only take 30-minute lunches in the cafeteria here and there,” she said. “During Harvey, everyone got together in the cafeteria—it was a gathering place. It was really neat to see.”

Buttaccio and Garibay were both impressed with how their teams stepped up to serve others even when some didn’t know what was going on with their own homes and families.

Buttaccio and Garibay were both impressed with how their teams stepped up to serve others even when some didn’t know what was going on with their own homes and families. “