Chew On This

Diversity lunch shows how WakeMed has grown

April 16, 2013 

It is not very often that I get invited to eat homemade versions of the ethnic foods that I love and even sample ones I’ve never tried before.

So when WakeMed spokeswoman Kristin Kelly mentioned the hospital’s regular diversity potlucks and asked if I’d be interested in attending, I wasn’t going to turn down the invitation.

I wasn’t disappointed. The buffet included Chinese dumplings, Guatemalan tamales, Jamaican rum cake, Filipino spring rolls made with homemade wrappers and more. But I got a lot more from the experience than a tasty lunch.

As the group of 20 WakeMed employees queued up for lunch, each talked about his or her heritage and dish.

Teo Eclarinal, who works in telecom services, had brought Filipino chicken adobo. “It’s traditionally vinegar-based and served with fruits because they don’t have many vegetables on the island,” he explained.

Sue Cuevas, a retired hospital interpreter, introduced herself: “I came from Iraq. I’m pure Iraqi. No. I’m not a mutt.” Cuevas had brought dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves filled with lamb, onions, rice and garlic. (Someone else later quipped that Cuevas was invited to the lunch despite her retirement because organizer Anthony Newkirk loves her food.)

Pittsburgh native Mike Hartge, who works in rehabilitation, had brought kielbasa and sauerkraut. Pointing to the stuffed cabbage rolls, he asked, “Who brought the halupki?”

“I’m from Bosnia. That’s my dish,” responded Divna Kesetovic, who works in food and nutrition services. “Poland says it’s their dish. We say it’s our dish.”

A multitude of languages

Although listening to the stories about each cook’s dish and family history was interesting, the truly fascinating discussion happened as people sat down to eat.

Newkirk, a manager of employee relations and diversity, started these lunches when he joined WakeMed six years ago. “It’s a safe way for staff to enter into the discussion,” Newkirk said. It’s a way for staff members to improve their cultural knowledge to better understand their co-workers and to better serve patients. It soon became clear how much food is a part of that latter equation.

WakeMed has hospitals in Cary and Raleigh. Last year, the hospital’s Spanish interpreters translated for patients 55,000 times. In 1999, that number was 11,000.

Spanish isn’t the only language spoken by the hospital’s patients. Last month, interpreters translated for patients who spoke French, Korean, Arabic, Vietnamese, Russian, German, Burmese, Mandarin, Nepali, Farsi, Amharic and Oromo, a language spoken in Ethiopia.

Nurse Sharon Ying described her experience when she married her Chinese-American husband. Her in-laws practice traditional Chinese medicine and believe only certain foods should be eaten based on a patient’s illness. For example, after Ying gave birth, her mother-in-law insisted she eat only hot foods, nothing cold. And so, Ying explained, staff shouldn’t be surprised to see Chinese patients refuse to eat hospital food and should ask if their families are bringing them something to eat.

One time, the mother of one of Ying’s patients brought a rice cooker to prepare food in the hospital room.

Tortilla instead of a biscuit

Cristina Krasny, director of interpretation and translation services, shared a story from when she arrived at WakeMed 14 years ago. A hospital aide had called for help with a Hispanic man who had been severely injured in a workplace accident and was refusing to eat.

When Krasny got to the room, the aide had the breakfast tray in front of her with eggs, grits, a biscuit, sausage patty and jam. The aide mixed the eggs and grits together and then made a sausage biscuit with jam on it.

Krasny warned the aide: “I don’t think he’s going to like that.”

Krasny said the aide responded: “That’s how I like it.”

When the aide tried to feed the mixture of eggs and grits to him, Krasny said the patient spit it out.

A nurse with Krasny’s translating then spoke to the patient to find out why he wasn’t eating. They asked if he was hungry.

“I’m starving,” Krasny said the man replied, “but I cannot eat that.”

He asked for eggs topped with salsa or diced tomato, a tortilla instead of a biscuit, some beans and rice.

Looking back on the incident, Krasny said, “We learned a lot from one patient.”

Ever since the hospital has offered tortillas, beans and rice on the breakfast menu.

Weigl: 919-829-4848,, on Twitter: @andreaweigl

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