I rather unexpectedly found myself in hospital for a fairly major operation a few years ago. It was a sobering experience; not only for medical reasons, but also for the insight it gave me into the trials and tribulations of being a patient in our hospital system.
The hospital concerned is one of Melbourne’s large, modern, privately operated facilities — it came highly recommended by a number of people, including several of my family members who just happen to be doctors. ‘Thank God for private health insurance,’ I said to myself. Friends who had been patients there in the recent past gave the place a good wrap but I was mildly perplexed by one negative comment that kept being repeated: ’watch out for the food — it’s really awful’, or words to this effect.
Now, if you get three days notice that you have to have a kidney and a rib removed, the hospital food is the last thing you concern yourself about. Remaining alive has a much higher priority. I didn’t give the hospital much thought. At least, not until I arrived and was allocated my room.
The physical environment started my concern
This hospital is a multi-story building with panoramic views of Melbourne from almost every room — except the one I was given. My room overlooked a dirty concrete wall, completely devoid of any visual features. Yep, it had the requisite hi-tech hospital bed which, at the press of a button moved every which way, but that’s about all it had. The rest of the room was quite bare and very worn; overdue for cosmetic refurbishment you could say. The large wall I faced while lying in bed had an appalling undersized watercolour painted by someone with no artistic talent whatsoever, which had been hung several degrees off horizontal. Picture a two star motel room in a remote country town and you’ll be about right.
My introduction to institutional cuisine
Shortly after arrival my first meal arrived, unordered and unannounced. A tray was presented to me with a covered plate containing four points of sandwiches, which had partially fallen apart revealing poor quality salami with commercial chutney; discoloured egg; and dried, cracked cheese and discoloured lettuce.
The bread curled alarmingly, suggesting production some time in the dim past and certainly not in the recent past The sandwiches were accompanied by a small commercial pack of pineapple juice (which I hate with a passion) and a plastic container full of tepid water and a tea bag, UHT milk and a sugar sachet. Out of professional interest I examined the sandwiches forensically and concluded that the kitchen had a hellava lot to answer for.
The menu offered promise
Fortunately, when you awake after a big operation the last thing you want is food but it still arrives nonetheless. The difference is that you order it daily from a photocopied menu on the assumption that you might just be hungry. The menu descriptions are full of promise and you hope that by random, ever-changing selection you might discover something appealing. Disappointingly, this did not happen.
The menu sold the dream — the reality was a nightmare
Over the next few days I was presented with the most appalling array of culinary atrocities. Some notables were cold, sinewy roast beef with booster gravy, accompanied by cold, grey mashed potato; soggy, pale breaded fish pieces with a side salad consisting of limp lettuce, unripe tomato and black olives that tasted like they were made by Nylex. I was also intrigued by some of the thinnest soups I have ever seen. I imagined the Chef’s last gig was at a gulag somewhere in Siberia.
Most of my food was returned uneaten, but you can only exist on water for so long, and eventually I had to submit and eat some of what was presented. The irony of the whole experience was not lost on me — here I was paying $500 per day for a two star room and the world’s worst food, delivered by people who seemed to me be recruited from among Melbourne’s criminal community. Their apathy was palpable.
A hospital is not a hotel
I have to be fair at this point and recognise that you are not in hospital for recreational purposes; you are there to receive medical treatment. This they did very well. The doctors and the nurses were mostly friendly and efficient and I have no complaints about the medical side of the experience — but this is the minor part of your day. Quick visits by the doctor and various nurses left you lying immobile in bed for long periods of time with nothing to live for but the TV and visitors. Being a hedonist, I should have looked forward to meal times but I couldn’t seem to warm to evening meals delivered at 5.00pm, irrespective of the quality of the food.
Thank God for home delivery
After five days of this gastronomic torture I couldn’t stand it any longer and mentioned my disapproval to one of the nurses, whose response was somewhat unexpected: ‘Yeah, we never eat the food, it’s absolute crap. We all order takeaway. We’ve got a whole library of takeaway menus at the nurse’s station. I can bring them to you and they will deliver right to your room. Do you like Thai? There’s a really good Thai restaurant just down the street.’ I nodded enthusiastically.
With this she picked up my uneaten meal on its tray and marched out to the food trolley and announced in a loud voice to the old crone in attendance, ‘Here’s another one who doesn’t want to eat it.’ The crone shrugged in a manner vaguely evocative of Tel Aviv and shuffled off. That night I had a fantastic meal, delivered by a cheerful fella who cared about what he was doing. At last.
So, my overall impression of hospital? Well, I can’t speak for all hospitals, obviously; but at the one I experienced the doctors and the nurses were trying to make you well, while the Chef was trying to kill you.