Hospital Food, Cancer & Healing. Attempting the Impossible

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BY LIZZY SMITH

So I spent 15 days in the hospital recently battling pneumonia. One of the most horrible parts of being in the hospital was the food. No joke, it was making my physically ill.

First, I was put on a neutoropenic diet, which means no fresh fruits and veggies unless they come in a heavy peal (like bananas and melons) or are cooked up. That alone drives me a little crazy because I absolutely love fresh produce. Like I probably eat an average of eight servings per day. The thought behind this rule is that if I get any kind of food-born illness, I have no immune system (like ZERO) to fight it.

Second, my hospital gives patients a room service menu that we can order off of any time we want from 6AM to 9PM. So when I first got into the hospital, no problem. I was ordering salmon, onion rings, steamed broccoli, green apples, soup… I was making as healthy choices as possible but the food was really disgusting. It was cold, under cooked or over cooked, inconsistent… Like once I ordered a tuna sandwich on sourdough. They brought me half a sandwich with almost no tuna. It was like two slices of bread with a small amount of spread. No pickles… nothing. The next day, I order the same thing. This time it’s a full sandwich loaded with tuna and two pickles. The pizza dough was nearly raw. The steak un-chewable…

And then by day four I would eat breakfast and throw up. Lunch… throw it all up. For two days, I had zero calories because I could keep nothing down. Honestly, the food was horrid and just looking at the menu made me queasy. The nutritionist came to speak with me.

“I cannot eat this food,” I told her. “It is too salty, raw, over cooked, overly processed. Even the soup comes straight out of a can. It is making me sick.”

“Well,” she said, “Here are our most popular items: milkshakes (we can add a banana), sole, enchiladas…” Instead of trying to find better and healthier ways for me to eat, it was what was most popular.

My doctor told me that to get discharged I must eat, not continue losing weight. So I started ordering milkshakes. The sole was horrid. The medical team ordered me medications to help me keep this disgusting, awful, unhealthy food down. It worked. Despite feeling awful just looking at the menu, I ate. And I stopped dropping weight. And I got discharged. Unsurprisingly, the minute I got home and started eating “real” food, I didn’t need meds to keep poisonous food down. I just ate and started healing.

I have NO idea how some hospitals can feed its patients like this. Foods that stress out our immune systems and help keep us sick. And then when our bodies revolt (like mine did), the response is to give us meds to hep us keep that disturbing food in our guts, making us weaker and sicker. This food does NOT aid us in healing.

One day when I was still in the hospital, I made this case to my doctor. “You must release me. I cannot heal anymore here. The food is making me sicker. It is stressing my immune system and is preventing me from healing. I don’t eat like this at home. I need proper nutrition. I need proper rest. This is critical to my health.”

I came home and reveled in cooked spinach and garlic with fresh lemon juice, salmon with minimal sodium. Cantaloupe. Quinoa. Grilled apples and oranges with cinnamon. Imagine this– in the hospital I was continually low in potassium and needing massive potassium supplements. Of course I was! My diet in that hospital was vitamin and mineral deficient. I got home and after eating fresh grilled tomatoes, lots of avocados, bananas and potatoes, my potassium levels became normal.

Shame on hospitals! We sick people NEED and DESERVE far better than highly processed, sodium heavy, and highly unhealthy food. We deserve foods that support healing and health, not help poison us. I call for a complete overhaul. Shameful!

As I head into my stem cell transplant, we originally were going to do it in-patient in the hospital. But after 15 days of eating that food, I just can’t. We are attempting this out-patient. One of the main reasons? I can’t fathom eating that horrid, awful, unhealthy, poisonous food for two more weeks. I need food that will help me weather this procedure as well as possible. And staying away from hospital food is one way I hope to do this.

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About Author

Lizzy Smith was diagnosed with myeloma in 2012 at age 44. Within days, she left her job, ended her marriage, moved, and entered treatment. "To the extent I'm able, I want to prove that despite life's biggest challenges, it is possible to survive and come out stronger than ever," she says.

3 Comments

  1. I agree absolutely with everything you say here, I have had the same exact experience. But at the hospital where I was the meal schedule was awful. The hospital psychiatrist accused me of having anorexia because I would not (could not) eat the awful hospital food. As soon as I got home I was back to feasting on healthy nourishing food and felt better immediately.

  2. Lizzy, I enjoy your posts, but I think this one is off-base.

    Hospital food is lowest-common-denominator food designed to provide sustenance to people with a wide variety of tastes (or lack thereof) and dietary restrictions. It’s not meant to be a “dining experience” nor to appeal to people with refined/foodie/gourmand tastes. It’s meant to give patients a baseline level of familiar options to keep them going, usually with minimal frills since most people don’t want a lot of flavor and don’t like it if it doesn’t taste like they make it at home.

    You were sick in the hospital with pneumonia and presumably issues related to myeloma, and presumably taking meds for each….but you seem convinced it was the food that was making you ill, not BEING ill.

    You mention the disgusting, poisonous, awful, unhealthy, mineral deficient food. But your examples have to do with a lack of a pickle (I love tuna sandwiches—I never expect a pickle unless I order one) and with one preparer putting less tuna on the sandwich than another preparer (a quality control issue, not a food quality issue), etc. The sole wasn’t like you like it. So what? I might not like how you fix it…does that make it poisonous or unhealthy?

    You say you wanted the real food you get/fix at home, which I guess is the same real, healthful food you were eating when you developed multiple myeloma. That food didn’t cause your cancer, and it won’t cure it, but it might make you feel better to have food fixed the way you like. That doesn’t make the hospital food poisonous.

    I don’t know your myeloma status, but vitamin/mineral deficiency is standard for those with certain meds and chemo. I did a transplant 18 months ago, and I’m still taking prescription potassium, magnesium and calcium, and we eat very healthfully at our house.

    The hospital food didn’t meet your expectations. I understand that. I just think it’s unfair to label as unhealthy food that wasn’t prepared or presented as you would have preferred.

    Good luck with your out-patient transplant. Perhaps half of such patients (like me) end up in the hospital anyway with pneumonia, so perhaps you will get to have more hospital food. 8^0 If that happens, you might plan to bring in things you are willing to eat.

    Again, good luck with your transplant!

  3. I agree totally wth you. Hated the tinned soup when soup was all I could handle. Hospital had me on liquid nutrient rich drinks when I couldn’t keep food down that were so sickly sweet that I could barely swallow them. The banana smoothies often tasted like they had used green bananas. While perhaps not poisonous I too couldn’t wait to get home and eat real soup made with real chicken bone broth and potatoes to thicken, real bread not the horrible white sliced stuff they served, and avocado (not avail in hospital). It is hardly what I’d call healing food. The dietitians only cared about calories – have you tried the cakes they’d ask!

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