I came across an opinion piece from the Columbia Daily Tribune about the foods available for visitors in the cardiac unit at the hospital. In Hospitals Should Take Snacks to Heart, Bernadette Dryden says everything I wanted to scream last fall when my mom was in the cardiac unit for five weeks at a local hospital.

While waiting for a friend who was having stents placed in his blocked arteries, Dryden decided to check out the vending machines “just a few steps away from the double doors behind which medical miracles of cardiac technology were being performed.” She had forgotten the pear and walnuts she was going to bring with her and was getting hungry. Here’s what she found:

One machine held 20-ounce bottles of Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Coke and water. The other was a veritable smorgasbord of America’s finest junk snacks. Of the 35 items for purchase, 15 were bags of fried salty/fatty chips and another 15 were doughnuts, cupcakes and candy bars. Gum and mints rounded out the remaining nutrition-free offerings. Not even a bag of peanuts or dried fruit got a square inch of space.

The most pathetic thing of all was the little half-inch-wide red heart pasted on the machine in front of one bag of salty cereal mix. The snack boasted “60 percent less fat than regular potato chips.” I couldn’t decide whether that was someone’s idea of a joke or the hospital nutritionist’s attempt to guide the buyer in the most “heart-healthy choice.”

This is the same thing I found in the vending machines at my local hospital. I often wondered if the vending machines were there to help drum up business for the hospital. There were better options in the cafeteria, but it was only open at certain times. When I could, I’d pop down to have a salad. But when I was waiting to speak with a doctor who may or may not show up that day, and the nursing staff has no earthly idea if or when the doctor may come in, spending time in the cafeteria getting food, waiting in line to pay for it, and eating it there was rarely an option. The vending machines or the gift shop were often where I needed to get food. At least the gift shop had bags of mixed nuts. They were oily and heavily salted, but at least there was some protein there.

The food served to my mother who had just had open heart surgery wasn’t much better either. She tried to stick with soups, fruits and vegetables because any regular entrée dish was basically inedible. When her doctors told her she needed to eat more substantially to get some protein, they suggested she order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

That doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. If the sandwich had been natural peanut butter and low-sugar jelly on whole wheat bread, it would have been a great idea. But it wasn’t. When my Mom opened the lid to her plate, she didn’t even recognize what she saw. I explained to her that what they were serving to her was something called an Uncrustables. A disk of flavorless, nutritionless white bread with sugar-laden peanut butter and jelly crammed inside.

In Dryden’s opinion piece she wondered how to change all this.

What would it take, I wonder, for medical care professionals to take seriously what their patients (or patients’ families) put into their mouths? On a daily basis the discoveries of the relationship between bad food choices and disease fill the pages of medical journals, newspapers, magazines, the airwaves of radio and television and cyberspace.

Yet, the disconnect between medical findings and fast-food culture embedded in cardiac cath lab lounges tells us of the complicity at play and reminds us that nobody is really at the wheel of the national health care ship.

I don’t know how to change how the hospital does things. But I do have some ideas about how to help friends and family who are spending the majority of their time at the hospital caring and advocating for a loved one. We can help them avoid the vending machines and eat healthy at both the hospital and at home when they are too tired to cook a healthy meal. Reading Dryden’s piece reminded me that I wanted to write a post about it. Come back tomorrow for my ideas.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Eating healthy as a hospital visitor, part 1
Are hospitals trying to drum up business with their vending machine choices?