Hospital surgery recovery: How food deliveries from friends and family got me through


Lamb Picadillo Tacos. (Deb Lindsey/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 9, 2013

You know those people who undergo major surgery but keep it under the radar because they don’t want to be a bother to anyone? Well, I’m not one of them.

Before my hip replacement in mid-May, I let everyone know I was open to receiving lavish attention, especially the edible sort. Enduring bone-on-bone arthritis for several years and having a hip replaced at 54 surely earned me some pampering.

My friends and family followed through splendidly, even organizing a dinner tree for people to choose dates on which to bring food, usually enough for an entire day’s worth of meals. Now that I’m nearing the end of my first two months of recovery, I realize the significant role that food played in those first few weeks. Mealtimes in the hospital were bright spots in otherwise dreary and painful days, and therefore palliative.

Once I was home, the need for others to bring food was even greater. In the initial days, my fiance, Michael, had his hands full helping me get around our multi-level house.

When he went back to work and I had to fend for myself, I couldn’t stand for very long and wasn’t allowed to bend over, twist or lift anything. Steps were out, so vessels and foods stored in the basement pantry were off-limits. Driving was forbidden for at least six weeks, so no grocery shopping. The goodies that friends delivered were lifesavers.

The moral of the story: Don’t be shy. Tell your loved ones what you need.

A couple of weeks before surgery, I attended a joint-replacement class at Sibley Hospital in Northwest Washington. After the session, my fellow patients-to-be asked all kinds of earnest questions about anesthesia, physical therapy and their impending hospital stay. I had only one concern.

“Can we bring in outside food?” I asked.

“Really,” said Michael. “That’s your question?”

What did he expect from a former chef turned food writer? I explained to him that I had full faith in my doctors’ abilities but not in those of a hospital kitchen. My surgery required a three-night stay, promptly followed by five nights in Sibley’s rehabilitative wing; I wasn’t planning on being deprived for that long.

My sister got things off to sweet start: A giant basket filled with Pirouette cookies, caramel-filled Werther’s candies, chocolate-covered Ecolier cookies, Ghirardelli squares, trail mix and loads of trashy periodicals awaited me in my room after the surgery.

“The nurses said I was delirious last night,” I texted her the next morning. “I kept mumbling something about party mix.”

That’s the family drug.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m bringing a big batch tomorrow.”

When I tried to order bacon with breakfast that day, I discovered I had been put on a restricted (that’s hospital-speak for completely dreadful) diet. My lunch was a shriveled shoe sole of turkey. Untouched. So when a friend texted me to ask if I needed anything, I didn’t miss a beat.

“Chicken wings,” I answered immediately.

Her officemates reported that Clyde’s had the best ones. Hours later I attested to their deliciousness, devouring them and no doubt alarming my hospital roommate. (He eventually got used to the parade of food.)

My anesthesiologist had warned me that I might experience dulling of the taste buds for a while or a metallic aftertaste, but no; food actually tasted more flavorful to me, and I wanted a lot of it.

Visitors stopped by with homemade oatmeal cookies, chocolate truffles, pastries from Praline in Bethesda, Caesar salad and even carrot juice (not a favorite). Not surprisingly, comfort foods like those wings topped my list of requested meals: a Montreal smoked-meat sandwich on rye from Wagshal’s Deli; a smoked-turkey sandwich on pumpernickel and a meat-filled Italian one from Stachowski’s Market and Deli; a Five Guys double cheeseburger, for which I did an extra lap around the nurse’s station.

The best times to visit people and take them food are around 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. In a hospital, you’re basically up by 5 a.m. and then wind up staring at the clock until 6:30, when you can order a breakfast that you might not want to touch, anyway. By 10:30, you can be ravenous. The same with lunch; even if you manage to pick at what you ordered, by 2:30 in the afternoon you’re hungry again.

I texted a colleague one morning, begging for a breakfast sandwich and a latte; she happily obliged. I usually don’t even care for those sandwiches, but I just had to have one. It was microwaved, greasy, awful and wonderful; I asked Michael to bring one the next day.

My friend Nycci Nellis, founder of the food-centric Web site TheListAreYouOnIt.com and organizer of my dinner tree, thought I needed to rein it in a bit, perhaps worried about the weight I had gained and have subsequently lost. She brought over two bags of more-healthful groceries.

“It’s something I do for friends when they have babies,” she says. “Not necessarily a meal, but things to sustain you. And lots of snacky things with different textures.” Mine included popcorn, dried sugar snap peas, egg salad, chicken salad, seaweed crackers, cheeses, dried fruit and nuts.

The food onslaught almost got embarrassing. No sooner had a feast of veal stew, soy-sauce-tossed scallops, grilled asparagus and strawberry rhubarb pie showed up than a pal arrived with some of my favorites: lacquered Peking duck, dumplings, shu mai and pea shoot salad.

At home, things were less out of control. Friends delivering food in the evening were invited to join us, as I was glad for the company. (Feel free to say no if you’re not up to it.) One meal included smoked beef brisket barbecue; a refreshing pea, radish and mint salad; corn muffins with honey butter; and chocolate spice cake. For another, neighbors brought DIY lamb picadillo tacos and a mixed salad with mango dressing and cashews. Pan-fried turkey cutlets, sauteed kale with mushrooms and onions, and macaroni and cheese proved another winning meal. All of them hospitably provided plenty of leftovers.

A Facebook friend from afar teamed up with a local buddy who delivered a basket with strip steaks, mortadella and ramp sausage (the latter became breakfast sandwiches) from Red Apron, cheese, yogurt and a bottle of red wine. Food kits are a great way to go for those undergoing a long recuperation.

One well-wisher brought over a huge batch of chicken and sausage gumbo and broke it down into individual and two-person portions using my own storage containers. She labeled them and stuck them in the freezer, and boy, did they come in handy.

As the recovery progressed, I started to cook again. There was great improvement to my arabesque, in which I extended my operated-on leg straight back while bending my other leg at the knee, lowering myself enough to retrieve below-the-counter cooking equipment and ingredients. I stuck to simple preparations, like the pan-ready crab cakes Michael got from a specialty market or chicken I roasted on the grill.

Although I craved independence, I still appreciated stopovers: full tea with scones, cakes and fruit one afternoon and a Vietnamese lunch on another.

Despite efforts to milk my situation as long as possible, attention from my do-gooders began to wane. The deliveries of food fizzled out. The day Michael caught me in the basement doing laundry, I knew the jig was up.

Good thing we still had that gumbo.

Hagedorn is a frequent Food section contributor and co-author with chef Cathal Armstrong of “My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland and Restaurant Eve” (Ten Speed, March 2014). To coordinate food sign-ups, check out sites such as www.signupgenius.com and www.timetosignup.com.

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