Hospital food holds a reputation for being pretty inedible. In the first hospital I graced with my presence, this was literally true. The first three weeks involved not eating anything at all since I was full of tubes and fighting for your life, it turns out, burns quite a lot of calories. ICU and High Dependency saw me drop the best part of three stone in three weeks – I was like one of those facebook ads for an improbable diet that promises spectacular results inside an impossible timeframe. Once my feeding tube was removed, the ingestion of real food could start again. The first thing I ate was a rhubarb yogurt and it tasted wonderful. My throat was too sore to start chucking anything robust down it so ice cold yogurt was perfect and I consumed a number of these for the first two days thanks to my mother feeding them to me. Then there was quite a lot of muttering about needing to build me up again, a hospital menu was produced and I was urged to choose some ‘proper’ food. I can’t remember what I selected via nodding for my momentous first meal but I can remember what happened next. Namely, the arrival of food was heralded by the rattling of a trolley full of trays and plates with metallic covers to keep the food vaguely warm. The dinner lady and her trolley swept into our ward and the appropriate dishes were efficiently distributed to the correct beds. I watched as my tray was placed upon my small table, which was at the bottom of my bed. Paralysed from the neck down, save for one arm, I regarded my lunch from the distance of six feet for around 90 minutes whilst my fellow unparalysed ward mates scoffed their food. Then the distant rattling heralded the return of the nice dinner lady, who swept up my tray and disappeared again. This went on for a few days. Unsurprisingly, I did not gain any weight during this time.
A nutritionist pitched up at my bed whilst my mother was visiting one afternoon and delivered a lecture to her about the fact that I needed to put on weight. Tracheostomy tubes down my trachea and therefore still unable to speak, I regarded her balefully as my mother took the proffered menu and chose the heartiest and most calorific option on it. Along with my breakfast, this was duly left at the end of my bed again the next day for me to stare at. Ironically I lost even more weight as I was no longer being given liquid food either and a few rhubarb yogurts a day were not really cutting it in the nutrition stakes. Once again, not being able to speak was proving deeply inconvenient, especially when added to not being able to move or breathe either. This unhelpful turn of events eventually came to an end on the fourth or so day when my mother arrived for visiting hours – which began at 3pm – to find my untouched lunch still sitting under its little metal hat, having not been collected that day. Maternal questions were asked along the lines of ‘why hasn’t my daughter been fed her lunch?’ and an answer came along the lines of ‘nobody’s asked us to feed her lunch’.
After that, I was added to the ‘needs food spooning into’ list but there were quite a lot of us on the overall spinal ward that fitted that description so by the time someone got to me, my food, despite its hat, was stone cold and the palatability of the cuisine had a corresponding relationship to its temperature; when one went down so did the other. My first feeding day went badly when, after one spoonful of cold chicken in congealed mustard sauce, I refused to open my mouth for a second one. Given it had by now been the best part of a week without much to eat, that tells you something either about how fussy I am or how truly dreadful the food was. Or possibly both. My mood over the whole situation was not improved by one of the nurses informing my mother, in front of me, that I might be ‘refusing’ food as a way of re-establishing control. Apparently this can be an occurrence with paralysed patients who fight to try and gain some small measure of independence back in the face of overwhelming powerlessness. Lacking control over most of their body, they can at least control whether they open their mouths or not. In my case, however, it was once more a case of things being bad enough that I was buggered if, after three weeks of not eating, I was going to chew my way through anything that made me retch. However, I was not able to voice this opinion either and so sat glowering in my bed with jaw firmly clenched closed instead. It was at this point that my mother took over and heroically for the next month carefully prepared, cooked and brought in something for me to eat every single day until I moved to my second hospital which was practically Michelin starred by comparison – but more about that later.
Once I was out of bed and decanted into the world’s largest and heaviest wheelchair I was also able to visit the external food franchises of the hospital as well as the actual canteen. The former consisted of a Costa coffee and a very small M&S food shop and it was almost impossible to get anything vaguely healthy to eat, despite being in a hospital. The Costa’s menu consisted almost exclusively of gigantic portions of the most sugar and fat filled foodstuffs available to man. There was something that resembled a Tunnock’s teacake but that was about the size of my head, a chocolate Rocky Road square that was probably a week’s worth of Weightwatcher points in one go and a Millionaire’s shortbread fit for a Russian oligarch. Meanwhile, over at the M&S, there were sandwiches of all hues laden with mayonnaise (I know this because I spent quite a long time trying to find one without – see possibly fussy, above), crisps, flapjack and cake of many types. However my particular favourite were the hospital vending machines. These all sported stickers on them about cutting down on sugar and fat whilst, to a machine, being stocked with nothing except chocolate or crisps. These choices did nothing to make it easier to fulfil my consultant’s recommendation that I consume around “90g” of protein a day. For comparison, the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 56g a day for the average sedentary man and 46g for the average sedentary woman and there was no doubt that I qualified as sedentary. I don’t actually know how many grams of protein a head-sized Tunnock’s teacake contains but I’m willing to bet not enough. Actually managing to eat double the normal daily allowance proved therefore to be rather tricky, given the choices on offer. Eventually we invested in several tubs of protein powder that were added liberally to drinks, smoothies and rhubarb yogurts in an attempt to meet my quota.
When I moved to my second hospital for rehabilitation, the spinal ward had its own canteen and its own menu. My hopes were not raised overmuch on arrival by discovering that the offering for the following day was faggots in onion gravy but luckily a more savvy inmate flagged to me that there was also an ‘ethnic menu’ and this turned out to be twenty times more interesting, varied and tasty than its native cousin. You could choose from a number of Indian, Caribbean and Halal options if faggots in onion gravy wasn’t your thing and all of them were delicious. To be fair, most of the native options were also pretty good, all things considered – this despite me sitting next to one inmate who regarded the arrival of the chef bearing serving dishes suspiciously. “Is that the fella what cooks the food?” he asked me. “Yes” I answered. “I’ll send him a get well card” came the response.
The dining room at my new hospital was the social hub of the spinal wing. Dedicated only to those with spinal injuries, it was the one place that all of us gathered together at the same time. Lunch was the main event – breakfast was served in the ward, literally in bed for most of us . (Whilst this is traditionally seen as a desirable thing, after seven or so months of trying unsuccessfully to spoon cereal into my mouth in bed without getting it all over me, I celebrated the morning I finally got to eat breakfast sitting upright at a table. I commemorated this event by tweeting the news to my twelve followers.)
Dinner was more sparsely attended as visiting hours were 3-8pm and many made their escape out during this time to either eat in the main hospital canteen or out out for those that had already learned to car transfer or who had hired a wheelchair taxi. Lunch is where we got to meet each other properly, chat, commiserate and ask questions. There was very much an esprit de corps – all of us had been through serious trauma and many had skirted death. Now we faced a future that was totally unlike any we had ever envisaged for ourselves and full not only of frustration, pain and difficulty but stalked by the dangers that accompany being paralysed. As one veteran of a high cervical injury put it to me, “Being unable to walk is the least of a spinal cord injury”. From various places and backgrounds, we were united in our predicament and this allowed full and frank discussions, the likes of which are usually off limits in any situation – never mind whilst you are eating. We talked of pressure sores, bowel movements, sepsis, nerve pain and urinary infections whilst spooning in lasagne with peas or apple crumble with custard. I did also once have a conversation with one gentleman about erections but this was at least in the gym. I’d also like to point out it was NOT instigated by me. Only a few of us were quadriplegics with limited or no hand function and the paraplegics happily helped us cut up our food or, in some cases, also helped spoon it in for some who had no hand or arm function. This took one task away from the nurses who could then go and feed those still bedbound and also ensured that, in this unit, nobody suffered from either going hungry or having to eat their lunch stone cold.