Heather Henderson’s smile lights up the room. Her enthusiasm for feeding patients and staff at SWMC is contagious and soon it’s like talking to an old friend. Heather runs the hospital’s kitchen–ordering food, overseeing sanitation and safety– working under Registered Dietitian Rose Leander.
Heather also visits with patients in their rooms to talk about their eating habits and provide nutritional education to help with their healing process. SWMC allows Heather to cater to each patient’s particular needs to provide the best care. She talks about things like eating preferences along with what the patient normally eat and at what time, as at SWMC meals can be provided at just about any time of the day.
“I’m really able to cater to our patients. We talk about what kind of food is really going to heal them. You’re not able to do that in larger facilities. It’s like room service but so much more,” Heather says. “It’s very personalized. Elsewhere, you don’t have 30 minutes to spend with the patient. We’re able to talk about their grandkids… really give them care that I couldn’t do in other places. That really makes my job, what I do here, great. I love food and nutrition, but it’s actually spending the time with people that really blesses and nourishes me.”
Heather also educates patients about things like food portions, eating too much protein at one meal, and food allergies like gluten. “If they have an inflamed gut, I’m not going to give them animal products or a bunch of grains. We’re going to do some really gentle things. Food is really either poison or nutrition. There’s not too much in-between.”
Some patients even stay in touch with Heather after they leave the facility, about their continued diet. “That’s always fun,” she says.
Heather studied nutrition at Santa Rosa Community College. She has a background in restaurants and became seriously interested in nutrition when she discovered her daughter had celiac disease and severe food allergies at a very young age.
“It became my mission, my passion, to heal her, but then also to help and educate others about how food is medicine. It’s not just filling your belly. My job is to make sure patients are nourished to heal. We make a fresh soup every day, for example, and we get a lot of positive feedback.”
The hospital also sources its ingredients locally as much as possible. “I love that we are in Sebastopol where so many farmers and gardeners know about food and know it’s nourishment, isn’t just something to fill you up. We use locally sourced ingredients, things that are ultra fresh. The quality is so much higher than if it was shipped in from thousands of miles away.”
Heather lives in Cotati and started at the hospital in August, 2017. In the middle of the night on October 9, she got an urgent call from the hospital. Santa Rosa was on fire. SWMC was about to jump from just three patients to more than two dozen. Soon, there were “a ton of transfers” to feed, not to mention the staff, and in the kitchen the cupboards were not well stocked.
“I went from a fairly stocked kitchen for a very small hospital to where my refrigerator was bare. I wasn’t prepared for the massive amount of patients we were about to have to feed, not to mention the staff. They had left in the middle of the night. They were hungry.”
But Sebastopol’s Safeway was open and Heather filled three carts with foodstuffs to make large amounts of country potatoes and eggs, chilies, lasagnas, and soups. “On the third trip there was basically nothing left on the shelves. I got as much produce as I could and we started making huge vats of soup. You can make magic with soup. It provides comfort and nourishes the soul as well as our bodies,” she said. Preparing that much food was a big challenge, however. “It was a huge amount of prep and cooking time. I was working 18 – 20 hour days.
When you are here at 6 in the morning until midnight… to say it was overwhelming is an understatement. You got to know who you were working with really well. It wasn’t just your work mates it was family at that point.”
In the days afterward, as the wildfires spread, food donations poured into the hospital from multiple sources in the community. Among them, the nonprofit Ceres Community Project delivered food for three days, and a Mexican restaurant in Rohnert Park brought 75 burritos, rice and beans. “I love this community. The amount of support was the most beautiful thing. It was unreal.” Individual families also brought in large salads, cookies, and other nourishment for the staff.
“People started calling into the kitchen. ‘Can I bring food? How can we help you?’ It was a beautiful display of community giving,” Heather recalled. “I hadn’t been here that long, and that was my inauguration into this beautiful gem we call Sonoma West Medical Center.”