Janie is a retired registered nurse in the Midwest. Earlier this month, she was hospitalized with an infection that had gotten so serious, her doctor decided she needed to receive her medications intravenously. Her hospital experience provides a lesson in why health care providers need to pay more attention to what they once might have considered the trivial needs of their patients.
The first meal delivered to Janie’s hospital room was a roasted chicken breast. The trouble was, she hasn’t eaten meat in more than 30 years, something Janie says she told the staff at check-in. “They asked if I had any special dietary needs,” she says. “I told them I’m a vegan.”
The chicken was removed and 30 minutes later a small salad and a pizza arrived — a cheese pizza. Janie was too sick and exhausted to make a fuss, so she ate the salad and went to sleep.
The next morning, breakfast was a steaming bowl of oatmeal. “I can’t eat this,” Janie told the staffer who’d brought it in.
“You can’t eat oatmeal?” he said, surprised.
“I can’t eat oatmeal that’s swimming in milk,” she replied.
He shrugged and took the tray away, and came back with a plate of eggs and generously buttered toast.
By now, Janie says she was weak with hunger. She buzzed the nurse’s station and told the RN who responded that she had not received the vegan breakfast she’d requested. The nurse assured Janie that the hospital only serves turkey bacon. “Then,” Janie says, “when she didn’t see any meat at all on the plate, she looked at me with a blank expression. I had to explain that vegan means no meat and no dairy.”
As a former hospital nurse, Janie understands how hard it is to keep track of the varied and sometimes peculiar preferences of patients. “And, God knows, there are a lot of food fads out there that come and go,” she says. “But in this day and age, with so many people from so many different cultures, religions and lifestyles, understanding all the dietary needs they have should be top of mind in hospitals.
“Maybe instead of telling them I was a vegan when I checked in, I should just have explained that I don’t eat any animal products. But, really, being a vegan isn’t a fad, and it isn’t as unusual as it used to be. Shouldn’t people who work in a hospital know what that means by now?”
Janie acknowledges that her experience was hardly the biggest crisis her fellow hospital patients faced that day. And in the end, the kitchen sent up a nice plate of steamed vegetables and rice, with a fruit cup for dessert. “It was really delicious,” she says, “though by then I was so hungry almost anything would have tasted good.”
The reason she wanted to tell about her experience wasn’t to make a mountain out of a molehill or to bash hard-working hospital staff. It was to raise their awareness that as health care reform takes hold, hospitals will get rated — and paid — on a broad new set of quality and patient experience measures. And the little things really do matter.