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El Niño Dining: Part II

[whitespace] hospital patient
Robert Scheer

Lip Service: After surgery, the average patient is ready for something a trifle tastier than hospital fare.

A few days in the hospital will cause even ecumenical taste buds to long for the pure comfort of recognizable ingredients

By Christina Waters

SO THEN IT got worse. How could it, you're wondering? After all, you surely recall my reconstruction of the fateful day when the 70-foot tree blew across my path, crushing the car and part of my jaw in the process.

You'll then remember my account of the challenging prospect of selecting foods that could be navigated through a labyrinth of sutures on, around and in my mouth. Soft foods. Comforting foods. Boring foods. Then I healed, the sun came back out and I vacationed in Seattle, where a sequence of headaches, tingling in the right arm and inability to write or type accurately sent me to miracle worker. Bernard Hilberman, M.D.

Cutting to the chase, let's just say that even while I was bound and gagged--metaphorically--within the high-tech confines of an MRI scanner, the nice folks at Dominican Hospital were already booking me into surgery. Brain surgery.

It was your basic subdural hematoma, a.k.a. a blood clot on the brain. "You really should be in a coma," said the cheerful guy in the blue hairnet wheeling me into surgery. After begging my gorgeous neurosurgeon, one Rosemaria Gennuso, not to shave too much of my skull (she didn't), I was fed some terrific sedatives, a hole was drilled in my skull, and 45 minutes later, I looked like outtakes of Bette Davis in Dark Victory.

With my head dramatically swathed in white bandages and an irritating little IV sticking into my wrist, I was a captive of the good sisters and brothers of Dominican--their guest, so to speak, for the next two days and nights of round-the- clock blood-pressure checks, temperature checks, flashlights aimed in the eye and lots of very nice people waking me up at all hours just to see how I was.

Well, what I was was hungry. I would have killed for a cappuccino and a scone, but I was promised a real breakfast--as opposed to water and juice--the next morning.

THIS IS GREAT, I thought naively, as I checked off my breakfast choices on one of those little menus like they have in hotels. Oatmeal--yeah. Whole-wheat toast--you bet. Orange juice, check. Coffee with cream and honey, check. A side of ham--why not? I went wild fantasizing about something to relieve the boredom and apprehension of Mr. Hospital. But reality was more than disappointing.

"What was it?" I mused, probing a tiny burgundy plastic container of gray goo. Right. That must be the oatmeal. Adding white liquid (allegedly milk of some kind) and a packet of sugar did absolutely nothing to pump identity into this flavorless stuff. No problem. They can't hurt the toast, I thought. They had.

The orange juice was just that: orange in color, and technically juice on account of its liquid state. It tasted like nothing that had ever passed my lips before or since. No comment could do justice to the ham, so let's just say that it defied any of the known laws of flavor, texture or recognizability.

Well, I was no longer a hospital-food virgin, that's for sure. But by evening, I was hungry enough to actually try again, when something white (chicken in drag?) arrived under a viscous blanket, also white, and a life-saving roll (edible) as well as, so help me, one of those plastic cups of chocolate pudding topped with a stiff dab of cream. (There's way too much faux cream going on in this world, by the way.)

Meanwhile, in the next room, I overheard a nurse loudly asking someone, "Well, would you like a sandwich then? We can order you anything you like." Whoa. What was this? I asked the next member of my steady parade of health-care providers whether I, too, could order a sandwich.

Only then was it revealed that Dominican has a secret food hot-line. Patients can dial it, speak to human beings and actually order what they'd really like to eat, rather than take their chances with the overly ambitious menu printed up each day.

Great. I'll have a cheese sandwich. Plain white bread, just mayo. Smiling at the poetic simplicity of this order, I celebrated by washing my face and brushing my teeth, all the while towing around my companion IV unit like a pet plastic and metal tree.

The sandwich arrived. It looked exactly like a sandwich. My excitement was, I'm sorry to have to report, dashed with the very first bite. It was a sandwich that had been abducted by aliens, its molecules rearranged, then beamed back down to the Dominican kitchen where it was sent to me. A Roswellian food experience disguised as a mild-mannered terrestrial cheese sandwich. Rubber.

No, that's not it. Cardboard. Yes, that's closer to the effect of this alien entity hitting my teeth and tongue. Knowing that it would bring nurses running, I suppressed a scream and reached for my telephone. Kelly, I whispered, bring me some pastries. Anything. Just as long as it's real food.

At dawn she arrived, my angel of mercy. Along with a double latté, croissant and carrot muffin. Tears sprang to my eyes at the first taste of something edible in almost 48 hours.

God bless the staff of Dominican, who provided expert health care to me during a very dicey emergency in my life. I have no doubt that the sheer flavorlessness of the food--living up to every hospital food cliché in the book--helped speed my recovery. Flavor is a powerful motivator.

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From the April 30-May 6, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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