The idea for this post came to me while I was lying in bed with tonsillitis. I’d had a sore throat before but this was different. The sharp painful swords stabbing at my throat, my tonsils and glands were blown up filling my mouth, the sheer agony when swallowing my food and drink. I can’t take this much longer I thought (luckily I was only unable to sleep properly for 3 nights). Then my thoughts turned to when I was an oncology dietitian advising patients what to eat when they were having treatment for throat cancer. They were probably feeling like this all the time.

I think sometimes as health professionals it is helpful to be able to feel empathy for our patients and understand what they actually go through. I never properly understood why people didn’t want to eat in hospital until I was an inpatient myself after giving birth to my first daughter. It was only for 24hours post birth but it felt a long time. I remember the dinner trolley coming and choosing macaroni cheese and roast potatoes but only managing to nibble at it as I felt so bad. I was straight on the phone to my husband to bring a sandwich in. The nicest thing I ate in hospital was a little satsuma and grapes that my mum bought in, they were so juicy and refreshing in the hot ward. 

 A few years back Sarah and I took on the challenge of following a low phenylalanine diet for Phenylketonuria (PKU) for a week. We took on this challenge as adults with PKU form a large part of our caseload. This included taking the bitter protein substitute drinks three times a day and only sticking to 7 exchanges of phenylalanine (~7g of natural protein) per day. All high protein foods were out of bounds and we had to weigh out and count all other foods containing protein in so we had no more than 7g per day. It was a hard week, but well worth it. It gave us a greater understanding and empathy for our patients. We could try meal ideas out, see what worked and what didn’t. We understood what it was like to be trying to cook for your family when you have to make something different for yourself. The restriction was hard, we couldn’t have normal bread, pasta or biscuits or cow’s milk in our tea. Realising why our patients’ phenylalanine concentrations often increase when they are older as it would be so easy to let higher protein foods, such as normal bread instead of low protein bread, slip into your diet for ease in a busy working life.

Other dietitians have taken on the challenges of their patients including having nasogastric tubes inserted or only taking nutritional supplement drinks for a week. Theory and practice build up our work experience but pushing ourselves that little bit further to see how our patients feel receiving our advice can give us the extra edge and respect from our patients. In turn, this will improve the quality of our work.

I don’t want you to injure yourselves to experience hospital food but take the most of all opportunities that come your way. Whether it would be volunteering to taste the hospital food, tying all the nutritional supplements your patients take or experiencing the diets that you advise your patients to follow. Go on challenge yourself.

A version of this post was first publsihed in the NHD Magazine, Dietitian’s Life column. 

Feature photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash