Hospital staff member up at 4am to prepare patients' food before joining strike

Hospital staff member up at 4am to prepare patients' food before joining strike
Joan Costelloe, Mary and Denise Hikey, Rose Curtin, Marie Keane, Brid O'Malley and Geraldine Harty, taking part in the Health Division SIPTU Official Dispute at the Midwest Regional Hospital, Limerick. Picture: Brendan Gleeson

There was no rest for Joan Costelloe, a cook employed at University Hospital, who awoke before dawn to prepare “special meals”, for patients unable to eat or swallow hard food.

Later, having joined her Siptu represented co-workers on the union picket line outside the hospital, she said: “I’m up since 4am to get in here to feed those patients. The (special meals) list I got this morning included renal/dialysis, coeliacs, low fats, dairy-free, and then you have the purées, mince moist, and soft meals, as well.”

“All in all I suppose I did, maybe about 40 dinners/salads this morning, to the best of my ability. Not all were puréed. With coeliacs you cant give them flour, and puréed patients (meals) had to be prepared separate.”

Work conditions in the kitchens are “hectic” she says.

We’ve taken on an awful lot of work in the last couple of years and we are not recognised for what we are doing.

Siptu said around 800 workers are involved in today’s strike outside University Hospital Limerick.

Costelloe, who has worked for the last 23 years in the Limerick hospital’s catering section argues her work is “important” and is directly linked to patient safety as she prepares “special diets” for patients with serious and complicated dietary needs.

It’s potentially “very dangerous” as she and her colleagues who are based in the hospital’s “main kitchen” are tasked with making “special diets for people who can’t swallow or eat properly so, we have that responsibility”.

“This morning, I went into the hospital at 5.30am to (prepare) those special diets for those patients, because the food that would be served today inside (in the hospital) wouldn't be suitable for those patients,” she claimed.

“It’s a dangerous duty - you can’t have a little piece (of food) because (the patient) could choke,” she explains.

“Everything for those patients has to puréed; and then, when they are able to eat properly they (have) a mince-moist to a soft diet.”

Calling for the increased pay she says she was promised by the government in 2015, Costelloe reiterates she should be rewarded for “a very responsible job”.

All patients in the hospital, when you are in the kitchen, when you're cooking meals, their lives are in your hands, because you have to be very careful what you are (serving) up to them.

Costelloe and the rest of the catering department “cater for the wards and the canteen for the staff” preparing three square meals a day for around “500 patients and then staff” resulting in an output of approximately 1500 meals everyday.

“We think it’s important work, and that’s why we want it to be recognised. It’s sad really that (the government) couldn’t come to some agreement and recognise us for the work we are doing,” Costelloe says.

Her message to those holding the purse strings is clear: “Just give us what is owed to us. We deserve it.”

Today’s menu at UHL, for the majority of patients on wards, included soup and sandwiches. Efforts were also underway to provide a “beef stew”.

A spokesman for UHL stated that due to “limited catering services”, senior managers at the hospital were putting their shoulder to the wheel helping to serve up meals to patients.

“Regrettably many patients will be served soup/sandwiches/salads rather than a full meal service. Special arrangements are in place for patients with specific dietary requirements,” the spokesman added.

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