Brad had lost his vision along with the ability to digest food in the wake of a stem cell transplant — the only treatment for relapsed aggressive lymphoma. His doctors at UC Davis Medical Center’s bone marrow transplant unit put him on total parenteral nutrition, an IV solution of sugar, protein, and vitamins that met all his nutritional needs except fats; once a week, he got a bag of lipids.
Though TPN sustained his body for weeks, Brad needed to learn to eat again to leave the isolation unit. Hunched over the tray, he was profoundly uninterested in the hospital food provided for him three times a day. Eating, for most of us a pleasure, was for him a matter of deep anxiety and abdominal pain. Salty broth powder stirred into lukewarm water seemed unlikely to reawaken his appetite, which had entirely disappeared, or to bring him comfort.
Food for the sick wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, Brad’s Jell-O would have been wine jelly, and the reconstituted broth a clear consomme. Cookbooks and home economics manuals used to include sections on “invalid cookery” as a standard part of domestic instruction. Why was the stuff on Brad’s hospital tray so deeply unappetizing? How did we get here? And, most urgently for me, how the hell was I going to get my husband to eat?
“Nourish” and “nurse” share the same root, the Latin nutrire, to feed, support, or preserve. Before modern medicine, providing food was one of the at-home nurse’s only tools to promote healing or offer comfort to an ailing child, spouse, or parent.
What my research participant made clear to me that day is that the lack of robust and accessible social programs for long-term care is merely a...