By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
He’s not wearing a chef’s hat, and his “kitchen” is an Instant Pot in a hospital teen hangout room, but Jeff Taber is lost in the joys of cooking on a Tuesday afternoon.
Taber, 44, is dicing onions and slicing meat to make beef stroganoff, while therapeutic recreation specialist Mary Myers pinch-hits as his sous-chef-in-training.
It’s all part of Taber’s therapy as he waits for a heart transplant on the third floor of Riley Hospital for Children.
Yes, this married father of eight is surrounded by pediatric patients, but Riley has been a part of his life since birth.
He has been inpatient at Riley since January, waiting for the day when he will match with a donor heart.
A chef by profession who has cooked in many restaurants, owned a bakery and led Ivy Tech-Bloomington’s hospitality culinary arts program, he has missed time in the kitchen during his long days at Riley.
Myers, whose specialty is adapting patients’ interests and abilities into therapy, knew Taber needed the stimulation of cooking again.
“Cooking has been this guy’s life,” she said. “When I first met him, he said, ‘I want to cook, I want to bake. That’s what I do.’ I see it as a coping skill for him while he’s here. It gives him a lot of pleasure.”
So, she set to work getting the necessary approvals and equipment to allow for this unusual form of therapy. In his first cooking session, he made fajitas. Then he moved on to beef stroganoff. Next, he planned to flex his baking muscles and make small apple pies. All of it created in the Instant Pot.
Why go to the trouble, you might ask?
“I’ve been here since January, and I’ve eaten everything on the cafeteria menu three or four times,” he said. “Mary wanted to help stimulate my appetite and help me do something while I’m here.”
Since Taber arrived at Riley, he has lost weight and muscle mass, not a surprise since he is in heart failure, he said. But he knows that he needs to be in the best shape possible to undergo a transplant.
That’s why his multiple physical, recreational and occupational therapy sessions are so important each week.
“This is another way to help me, a more fun way. I love cooking.”
HIS “LOVE LANGUAGE”
His IV pole gets in the way as he maneuvers around the small space he has to cook in, but he makes it work with Myers’ help.
“Jeff comes from a family of food,” she said. “He’s been a chef, a teacher. It’s his love language.”
And now, he can’t even cook for his family.
The hospital cooking sessions help improve his motivation, keep his physical and cognitive skills sharp (even if his knife isn’t, he laughed), and lift his spirits, she said.
Dr. Herrmann, surgical director of the adult congenital heart program at Riley, is all for this “clever” therapy, especially for someone like Taber, who has been in a holding pattern – away from his family and his normal life – for so long.
“The mental aspect is maybe the most difficult part for these adults,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve heard of such a creative therapy that uses a patient’s professional skills. I think it’s a wonderful idea.”
While timing for a donor match is unpredictable, Taber is optimistic that it will happen soon, and once it does, Dr. Herrmann said the outlook is good.
“He will no longer be dealing with heart failure symptoms, no longer having these physical limitations in so many aspects of his life.”
Before getting the OK to cook with Myers’ help, Taber busied himself with what many might consider child’s play — LEGOs.
He’s surrounded by kids, so why not?
“I’m the unofficial LEGO man on this floor,” he said, noting that having eight kids of his own (ages 17, 15, 13, 12, 11, 9, 7 and 6) has given him a lot of practice over the years.
He has decorated his room with his creations, sometimes putting them up at the nurses’ station. When his kids come to visit from the family’s home in Bloomington, he jokes that the younger ones give him a quick hug, then go play with the LEGOs.
Myers has witnessed the change in Taber since he became more engaged in activities at Riley.
“Just being more physically active has helped him,” she said. “Having fun does great things for us.”
About an hour after last week’s cooking session began, Taber was ready to dig into a piping hot plate of beef stroganoff.
And he was already thinking about what’s next for Chef Jeff. A new recipe maybe? Or even better: a new heart.
In the past three or four years, more than half of the heart transplants at Riley have been done in adults with congenital heart disease, Dr. Herrmann said. Each year, the team transplants three to five adults on average with donor hearts at Riley.
While he operates at Riley and IU Health Methodist, historically it has been deemed easier to keep adult congenital heart patients at Riley because of the proximity to specific expertise on the cardiology side, the surgical side and the anesthesia side, Dr. Herrmann said.
“We view it as a congenital cardiac program, and we want to take care of patients of all age ranges unless there are reasons they absolutely cannot be at a children’s hospital.”
Riley Hospital’s cardiology and heart surgery program is ranked sixth in the nation in U.S. News & World Report’s 2022-23 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings.
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com