I’ve had to adjust my opinion, based on memory, of hospital food. The Dickensian bowl of gruel did not materialise, not once. Though on the first day, I did not have a choice but to eat liquid food: very fragrant soup for lunch and dinner, and oatmeal porridge for breakfast. The offer of fruit flavoured yogurt with each serving, already elevated it to at least hostel, if not hotel food. Not the hospital food I remember. Imagine my surprise when a pert, uniformed woman arrived at the end of my first day post-procedure with a pre-printed, carbon interleaved pad with menu options for the next day’s breakfast, lunch and supper. I was a little sedated from painkillers at first, and could not make out what she was rattling off. Turns out: a whole menu. I asked to see it, so that I could have a more leisurely look at my options. It read like a B&B or hotel room service menu. I chose the warm breakfast: whole-wheat toast, scrambled eggs, bacon(breakfast rashers) and mushrooms; chicken supremes with mashed potato and a salad for lunch; and a lamb and lentil curry with rice for dinner. The other days I tried out more options, delighting in the gourmet style descriptions of the meals: ” Deboned lamb scented with rosemary and thyme, served with a herb enriched sauce” for instance.Deserts on offer? Coconut panacotta, trio of torte, blueberry marbled cheesecake, and of course the more conventional hospital style jelly and custard.
My first encounter with hospital food was when I was 13 years old. At the local hospital where my uncle did minor and not so minor procedures, I had my appendix out. He diagnosed acute appendicitis when my mother thought that I was really just not feeling like going to school: tummy ache being the ubiquitous excuse for such days. So I was bundled off to hospital. I got a new nightie I think. But I also got shaved unceremoniously and rather unsympathetically. I lay there softly crying, feeling terribly exposed and humiliated even while my very private pubic area was scraped free of a first, prepubescent growth of dark hair by a hard talking, harsh looking nurse. Later, in theatre, when my uncle lifted the cover to see if my lower belly was prepared properly, I almost cried again. It was as if I had lost something precious: my private parts had suddenly become public. I guess that was my introduction to how helpless and vulnerable one is when one’s body needs that kind of intervention… (this time around and almost 40 years later I at least knew to shave!)
I woke up that first time to three days of feeling awful: in pain, very alone in a ward with two other women, and awful food. Oatmeal breakfasts only. Colourless, tasteless soup for lunch and dinner the first day. Pale, overcooked veggies with small portions of dry chicken. No yogurt. White bread toast was offered, I think. It is a long time ago after all. But it set in my mind an association with hospitals of feeling helpless and being hungry for real food. Add to that a smattering of minor other procedures when all I remember eating was flavourless soups, since I never stayed beyond two days, and the idea of horrible hospital food was entrenched in my mind.
A couple of years ago I was in hospital for a total of ten days after two back surgeries, but for some reason I don’t recall the food at all. I don’t remember being impressed. I may not even have been paying attention to what I ate. I was quite depressed, knowing that I was going home to a man who required constant attention and who in the end and true to form, could not cope with me being a patient. The relationship had been strained for a while, and all my energy went into just surviving: I did not have the luxury of feeling so relaxed that I could pay attention to something as frivolous as hospital food and the quality thereof. The fact that I am doing that now: thinking and writing about my experience of hospital food is significant of exactly how free I feel. I can turn my attention to whatever I want, and write about it, without fearing judgement and criticism from a supposed partner.
This time around I am being pampered and cared for and cooked for: a big pot of chicken soup, at my request, was on the boil on the morning that I got home. I have chocolates next to the bed. And as many cups of tea as I feel like asking for. And back rubs, and listening in the middle of the night to a vivid dream which woke me up and I had to tell: I can cope with any hospital experience knowing that I have this to come home to.
Earlier today I peeled off the wound dressing and found that my doctor has made the incision in such a way that my very first scar from my appendix operation is incorporated in this new wound so that it forms one seamless line. Somehow this seems fitting. A coming together, a completion. And soon I shall be back in the kitchen. For now, I am healing. For ever, I am healed.