New Caregiver Dinner Program Serves Up Support

The tables are covered with festive cloths and centerpieces. The entrees prepared by Chapel Hill area restaurant chefs. But this dining venue is open only on Tuesday evenings for a special group: caregivers and family members of patients undergoing bone marrow transplantation at the N.C. Cancer Hospital.

The weekly gathering is the idea of Gayl Talbert, nurse manager of the transplant unit, who saw how effectively it worked for the pediatric service. Talbert explains, “The caregivers of BMT patients spend countless hours in the hospital with their loved ones.  Providing an opportunity for these caregivers to share their stories with others while enjoying a delicious meal is so valuable.  They realize that they’re not alone on this journey and learn from the experiences of others.”

She contacted Linda Bowles, director of UNC Health Care Volunteer Services Department, about starting a similar program for adult patient caregivers and family. The Volunteer Association provided start-up funding for the program through a grant.

Says Bowles, "It's a way to make life a little better for these folks who have to be here for so long. Family members don't want to leave the patient's room, so will skip meals or eat something off a food tray. By offering them a meal on-site, they're getting proper nourishment."

Tammy Harper of Leland, NC, has spent weeks at UNC with her husband, Orville, as he underwent a transplant in March and has returned off and on to treat complications from the procedure. She is staying at Family House and often dines there in the evenings. "The Tuesday meals are wonderful," she says. “I am able to stay longer with my husband. It helps with costs as well since I don’t have to eat in the cafeteria or pay twice for parking back and forth to Family House.

Carolyn Mitchell of Cameron, NC, is with her husband, Norman, who underwent a transplant on October 6. For her the meals are "an opportunity to meet other family members who are going through the same thing you are. We share our experiences, and I have received information that has been very beneficial."

The meals are donated by different restaurants for two weeks in a row. Thus far, Top of the Hill, Piola, Acme Restaurant, Spice Street, and Ruth's Chris Steakhouse have provided meals. "We are enormously grateful to these businesses for their generous donations of food," says Linda Karp, an energetic and dedicated volunteer who ventured into the community and approached several restaurants about helping. "Our families get to sample some of the finest cooking in a convenient setting. And, this is a good way to bring the caregivers together."

But the meals are just part of what is offered to transplant patients and families.  Each patient checking in for a transplant receives a gift bag of a journal, hard candies, a puzzle book, flashlight and other items.

"The gift bag concept was part of the initial grant written by Gayl Talbert, and we tried to think of items that might be both enjoyable and helpful to patients during their long hospital stays," says Loretta Muss. Muss, whose official title is coordinator of the N.C. Cancer Hospital Patient and Family Advisory Board, helps all these efforts get started and up and running. She often makes delicious desserts to serve with the meals and works with volunteers to initiate a service or program.

Another program offering getting underway is called the BMT Buddy Program. Gayl Talbert describes it, explaining, "The goal of the BMT Buddy Program is to pair specially trained volunteers with BMT patients and caregivers in an effort to decrease feelings of isolation and increase opportunities for socialization. The volunteers who are currently assisting with the Caregiver Dinners have all undergone the training and are getting to know the patient population here on the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit."

"Some of the ways volunteers work with the patients and families include: setting up for the caregiver dinners and socializing with them during the dinner; assisting patients and caregivers with getting to know the Chapel Hill community; offering companionship and diversion by visiting and telephoning on a regular basis; motivating patients to stay active by using the Healthy Heels program on the unit; and providing respite care so that caregivers can take a break from their responsibility and get much-needed rest. We ask that volunteers serve at least three hours a week."

"We're starting this program slowly so that we can identify and correct any potential stumbling blocks. Anyone who wants to become involved in this program may contact either Linda Bowles or Suzanne Davis of the UNC Health Care Volunteer Services Department: 919-966-4793."

View more photos from this event.