I’ve just wrapped up my NEIS coursework
, and to celebrate I want to recount a story about my teacher Jason that also demonstrates why I’m so glad I decided to sign up for this microbusiness training and mentoring program.
A few years ago, Jason was the director of training at a large catering company which had a significant focus on healthcare facilities such as nursing homes. To get a feel for the training needs of his workforce, he decided to tour their workplaces, immersing himself in their day-to-day work. (His CEO was frankly a little surprised by this — as is the case with many sectors, it was uncommon for management to visit the frontlines. In fact, when he urged the Head of Care at one aged care facility to tour the frontlines of her own operation with him, the staff didn’t recognise her, and assumed she was a visitor. Yikes.)
While working with kitchen staff in one nursing home, Jason noticed that one resident, a lone old woman, always ordered the same dish: a single salmon sandwich. Intrigued, he asked the staff about this, and they shrugged. “She must like it,” was the reply.
The next day, Jason decided to have lunch with her. After a pleasant meal together, he couldn’t contain himself.
“Betty, I’ve noticed that you always order a salmon sandwich,” he said. (I love that he still remembers her name.) “I don’t mean to pry, but, uh, why is that?”
She looked at him for a second.
“It’s because I’m afraid,” Betty whispered.
It turned out that Betty had dysphagia
— a problem with her pharynx or oesophagus that made swallowing difficult — and was terrified that if she admitted this, she would be placed on the puréed diet of an invalid. Over time, she’d gotten used to salmon sandwiches as the one meal she knew could swallow without issue. And because of her fears, that’s all she ate.
“Betty, how long have you been eating salmon sandwiches as your only meal?” Jason asked.
“Two years.” So basically, a resident had been potentially malnourishing herself for years because the systems around providing and talking about choices under this regime of care were broken.
After setting her up with a more appropriate (and still chewable) set of diet choices, Jason decided to consult with dysphagia experts and patients like Betty to create a unit of training about these kinds of patient needs, aimed at preventing such system breakdowns. Everyone at their client nursing homes could attend. The aged-care nurses who came were flummoxed, telling their Head of Care, “Why are we only hearing about these kinds of problems and solutions from the catering guy? No offence, Jason, but seriously, WTF?”
In the midst of such regimented systems, where industrial efficiency often erases the possibility of supple action or even humane behaviour, I’m grateful that compassionate minds like Jason’s exist. When curiosity seems like it’s at death’s door, people like him arrive to revive it.
The reveal: I was initially pretty skeptical about doing the course under Jason because before classes started, I’d gleaned that he’d spent most of his career managing McDonald’s restaurants. It turns out that my fears were misplaced, because I got a lot out of his teaching. While I really don’t share his interest in large food systems, either in experiencing them as a customer nor in their general industrial impact on the world, I’m glad there are people like him enmeshed in such forbidding places, trying to make them more sensitive, responsive and just.