SW Newsletter #27

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Dec 7th 2007

Welcome to the latest newsletter and a warm welcome to the new members of the Star Wards’ community. Last week I was invited not just to see but to take part in a group at one of my local hospitals, Highgate Mental Health Centre. On all my visits to hospitals, I’ve appreciated the opportunity, where it wasn’t too intrusive, to pop into an activity taking place. I’d previously visited and felt considerable warmth towards this hospital, not least because their modern matron Jo Spencer is so dynamic, committed and attentive to the details which really matter to patients. I’ll begin with some information from the group’s ‘protocol’ and then bung in the tale of my deeply enjoyable, memorable experience there.

Highgate Mental Health Centre’s Prepare and Share Group

The prepare and share group is a new group incorporating a range of experiences for service users by preparing and sharing a meal together which is of a restaurant standard. The aim is not necessarily to enable patients to re-create the overall experience at home but take away elements and principles of it to improve their cooking skills and their social interaction with others. Participants who contribute in any way to the preparation will be encouraged to join in sharing the meal communally but special arrangements can be made for anyone who prefers to return to the ward.

The group relieves the patients of having to consider budgets or their own capabilities and is not strictly time limited. The end time for the group will vary according to the particular menu in terms of the time needed to prepare and clear away. The group has a 4pm start time so that it replicates more closely the timing of the evening meal at home with the meal usually being eaten between 5.30pm and 6pm. Care will be taken to try and foster a sense of occasion by using particular types of food or styles of cooking to honour occasions, festivals and/or culture whenever this applies.

The objectives are to:

  • Encourage co-operative working with others
  • Create an environment to enhance social skills
  • Benefit from role-modeling by others
  • Refine skills in preparing food from fresh raw ingredients
  • Gain an sense of achievement by contributing to a successful end product
  • Provide an opportunity to learn about healthy eating in a practical way
  • Enjoy the experience of eating together without distractions such as TV.

Participants – The main facilitator will invite inpatients from Topaz ward based on their current risk assessment and mental state. Patients from other wards may also be invited to take part as appropriate. To encourage the social element of the group, participants are invited to the kitchen at 4pm in the same way that anyone would be invited to a social gathering. The emphasis is on invitation rather than referral to the group. The menu and the ingredients will have been planned in advance using suggestions from the previous week.

Taking part in the group

Driving to the hospital, I wondered whether I’d be a bit unsettled by being part of an inpatient group for the first time since I was “released back into the community” as our Nick likes to say. (Nick’s understanding of political correctness is more about the ethics of voting rather than the need not to say I’m “at large in the community”. A young friend last week delightfully referred to my compulsory admission as having been “sectioned off”.)

But once I was in the largely homely ADL kitchen, and greeted by Jo and the Ainsley Herriott of HMHC, ward manager Imran, the whole hospital thing fell away. No time for any of that as it was clear from the start that this was a serious catering event. Jo handed me one of the nice sharp knives the group were using to dice the veg, and I settled down to massacre the tomatoes for the ratatouille. (I certainly wasn’t allowed anywhere near any sharp objects when I was an inpatient….) My fellow catering assistants included current inpatients, one of whom was on a section, and a man who’d been recently discharged. Such a brilliant idea to enable someone to come back for a burst of contact and an enjoyable event.

It was palpably evident how much everyone was appreciating taking part. Being absorbed in meticulously preparing the veg, adding ingredients to continuously and very visibly transform the emerging ratatouille, enjoying and sometimes joining in Jo and Imran’s banter, and of course slacking off and having a nice cup of coffee. Jo wasn’t just the person who discreetly and swiftly locked the knives back up when we’d finished our task. This modern matron has two very important roles in

the group. She makes the coffee and washes up. “Sometimes when we have new people here, Imran introduces me as his boss. And they just laugh!” said Jo.

While Imran (who handily has chef training among his plentiful other skills) coached and co-ordinated the creation of the meal, Jo took a break from washing up and revealed yet one more skill. Decorative serviette folding. She demonstrated and then patiently encouraged us through the origamising of the serviettes, soon transformed into classy fans with their own little stand. I don’t want to boast but I do think mine was the best. Even though it looked more like an umbrella than a fan. Innovation and creativity rather than accuracy are core principles in my serviette folding philosophy.

Dishes cooked, the table was prepared. Not just a quick wipe and cutlery and plastic cups all round. A lovely tablecloth and smart glasses specially schlepped there each week. The meal was delicious, and began with samosas which had (again, inspiredly) been prepared on the ward by patients not able to take part in the cooking group itself. But the starter and main course were then totally out-classed. We watched transfixed as Imran hacked away at a pineapple, apparently randomly chopping off the woody casing. I can’t do justice in mere words to the sculptural masterpiece which astonishingly emerged. You’ve got to either lure Imran over to your hospital for a repeat performance or nip along to our website for photos of the glorious results: http://tinyurl.com/yubtgu

When the group had gone back home or to the ward, Jo and Imran gave me a deeper appreciation of the activity’s value. The whole schtick about sitting together and enjoying a meal like a family is very novel for some patients. One had commented: “I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t done it before”. (Clearly a non-Jewish patient not subject to our lifelong 3 line whip of Friday night dinners.) Imran stressed the social value of the occasion: “People see the other side of things – even that you can joke with your manager.” And on the mental health side, Imran described how patients who behave very erratically on the ward, act perfectly conventionally in the group. They’ve never had anyone eat messily or  inconsiderately. It’s also an incentive for people to smarten up. One of cooks/guests had reached a compromise with Imran and was discreetly wearing a nighty under her dress. Another affirmed what a positive experience we’d all had, by saying (with classic inpatient understatement) “I don’t mind coming next week.”

Many thanks to Jo, Imran and my fellow chef apprentices for letting me take part in this terrific activity.


All the best