The Hospital Cafeteria

October 20, 2018

Now the most comfort I have is thinking what food I will be able to snatch in between appointments. I think back to the years before, when I would be excited to come here with my mom, because the cafeteria had a frozen yogurt machine with a small selection of candy toppings in the back corner of the cafeteria. It was exciting. People who were wearing mint shower-caps on their heads were filling cardboard containers with mini corns; others with masks and cards around their necks were running to the shelf of pre-made sandwiches. When I went to Sacred Heart was one of the only times I was able to pick whatever treat I wished for. Candy, slices of cakes, pie, and especially frozen yogurt was what I would think about when going there. After a stop at the cafeteria, having filled my paper bowl to the brim with vanilla and chocolate yogurt and all available chocolate candies, I would sit happily in a waiting room with the frozen treat dripping down my elementary school polo as my mom went into a far-off room to receive radiation. I was too young to understand the depths of the reason I was there.
Now, I am in the hospital with my mom again, six years later, trying to stretch the time between my own appointments. A pulmonary test, heart examination, blood tests, and a meeting with my oncologist occupy my day ahead. We have been waiting for my blood results for half an hour in the whimsically decorated children’s oncology/hematology waiting room. I beg to go to the cafeteria. Recently, my mom has never turned down a moment when I ask for food, so she rushes us down to the cafeteria. What I hope for is the variety of fresh sushi they have delivered every morning and stacked in the clear shelves at the heart of the cafeteria. I had missed being able to eat sushi during my treatments. Before my first treatment, I would buy sushi every time I stepped into the hospital for an appointment or test. Vibrant combinations of green, pink, red, yellow, and white rows of sushi rolls would sit in their clear boxes, displaying their playfulness to hungry onlookers. I distinctly remember looking for my favorite rolls that had thinly sliced pieces of ripe avocado covering the top of the rolls the last time I could. For some months, I was not allowed to eat any of it. It was raw, which is one of the many things one has to avoid when receiving chemotherapy. I hold the clear case of matcha green rolls up over my head to show my mom, who is pulling garbanzo beans with a large spoon from the salad bar. She smiles nervously at me. This would be my first time eating my favorite food since my treatment began. It has been three months since the last round, and the first week off my antibiotic. A small, timid nod from her sends me into an exited frenzy. I anxiously await for what I remember so fondly of this sushi: the zest of the ginger, the salt of the soy sauce, and the creamy delicacy of the combination of fresh fish and avocado.
I turn around to see bags of colorful candies hanging in columns. Gummy bears, Whoppers, Sour Patch Kids, and Peachie”˜Os are packed together on small black hooks. Whenever I saw candy I used to always want it. Now it does not seem as appealing to me. My taste changed among my rounds of chemotherapy. I did not want sugar anymore, nor do I want it much now. Before, sugar was a comfort food to me. The first time I walked up to the children’s oncology/hematology unit my parents and I bought chocolates from a Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory booth. The fudge comforted me in the car on my way home following the discovery of my diagnosis. When I was worried about what the future held, my friends brought Peachie’Os to my house to cheer me up. However, when I received get-well presents of candy from friends and family after my first round of chemotherapy, I was no longer interested in the sweets that I loved before. I laid in my bed with piles of unopened candy on my bedside tables. Now for the first time in several months have I had the urge to eat candy, but, I pass by the section of sugary treats.
As my mom and I buy our treats, I think of all they ways this cafeteria has helped me through chemotherapy. After the first night of the first round of my chemotherapy treatment I was no longer able to look at the inpatients menu provided. I could not order from or look at the menu without having a nauseated feeling from the flashback it gave me from that rough night. Ever since then my parents would run downstairs to get me anything I was willing to eat while in the hospital. They would bring their scalloped potatoes, chicken strips, soup, and many other foods, trying to keep me healthy enough to carry through the several rounds I had to endure.
After my mom pays for our meals, she rushes us to the elevator around the tight corner, where the entrance of the cafeteria is. We shuffle into the rectangular elevator with several other hospital personnel, trying to keep their food from bumping into others by holding their items close to their chest. As soon as we reach level three I sit on the outside of the waiting room on the lopsided, dark blue cushion, meant to look like a wave, and readily open my clear container, unfastening the small button keeping the sushi sealed and fresh. With my chopsticks, I prepare my first roll. I gently lay the thinly sliced ginger on top of the roll and with a quick dip into the soy sauce, pop the piece, in its entirety, into my mouth. The first taste of the previously forbidden food is like my first breath since treatment, allowing my senses to know I am okay.
Grace Petrusek