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My Thanksgiving: Supporting Kids with Severe Illnesses at St. Jude

"Our goal is to help them continue making memories and make the best of the situation they’re in. Let’s keep doing things to promote that feeling of tradition and celebrating things together."

St Jude's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee

Thanksgiving is a holiday that’s most popularly recognized as an occasion to eat too much, watch television, fight with your in-laws, and occasionally give thanks, but the reality is much more diverse. In “My Thanksgiving,” we’re talking to a handful of Americans across the country — and world — to get a broader sense of the holiday. For some of our interviewees, they have no traditions at all. But the day — steeped in American mythos, an origin story that comes with great complications — is at least passively observed by even the most agnostic of patriots. In this installment, a Child Life Specialist and an Executive Chef from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis talk about helping patients celebrate during a difficult time.

JENNIFER SMITH, CHILD LIFE SPECIALIST

One of the things we always focus on is family time and togetherness, and, of course, that comes out especially on Thanksgiving. As part of our jobs as Child Life Specialists, we try to create a sense of normalcy for patients and families. At St. Jude, the majority of our families aren’t local. At the end of the day, they may go back to their housing, their apartment, their hotel, but they don’t necessarily get to go back to their larger support system.

The question I tend to ask kids or ask parents is, “if you weren’t here in the hospital right now, what would you be doing? What are you missing out on? And what can we implement to make it more normal?” Our goal is to help them continue making memories and make the best of the situation they’re in. Let’s keep doing things to promote that feeling of tradition and celebrating things together.

On Thanksgiving, the ICU staff take it upon themselves to prepare a meal for the families that are there. When kids are in the ICU, parents don’t really want to leave the room or even their bedside, even to go downstairs to eat. They’re just a little bit more worried that something might happen. So, everyone pitches in and either brings something or donates money. Even if they’re not working that day, they still partake in some way or another. They set up a big table, there’s tons of food, and they take these families to eat together on that day. They’re eating with what sometimes they consider their family, their St. Jude family, and it’s their home away from home in this point in time. It’s a time of gathering and it’s a time for them to be with people who care about them and love them. Plus, they get to have some really good food.

If I were to dream big, I would go to every family and say, “who do you usually spend Thanksgiving with and who can we bring here for you to spend it with? What family can we bring here to make it better, to make it feel more like Thanksgiving for you?” It’s very hard to do stuff like that, but I would want to individualize it because everyone’s different. I want to keep their traditions alive and do as much as I can.  

RICK FARMER, EXECUTIVE CHEF

Our day-to-day is incredibly busy. We feed anywhere from 2,500 to 2,800 people a meal. Even with a staff of 30 in the kitchen, it’s always a very action-packed day. We’ve got an amazing support staff. Every one of them care about what they’re doing.

We really just want to give them a taste of home if we can.

For Thanksgiving, we do a special menu for everyone. We actually buy the whole staff Thanksgiving lunch and dinner. For patients, we do a classic, homey meal. Sometimes, we might have a patient that doesn’t want to eat anything, and we might go speak to that patient or the family and get a family recipe and recreate something to try to get them to eat. We always make a special sweet treat for them, it might be a cookie in the shape of a turkey or a pumpkin or a special cupcake. We really just want to give them a taste of home if we can. We want to make pretty basic, good ol’ Thanksgiving dinner, just like they would get at home. That’s the goal.

The doctors work really hard to get as many patients as possible home for the holidays, but it still gets very busy for Thanksgiving. Some of the patients would obviously rather be someplace other than a hospital, but I think it’s as cheerful as it can be under the circumstances. The meals are always well-received by everyone. We’re happy to do it. And we don’t have any difficulties getting folks to work on holidays. My staff likes to be here and serve patients and everybody on the holidays. They’re really happy to contribute to making a child feel better.