Asked what she enjoys most about her work, Laura Schlitz says, "Being in a position to have a positive impact on our patients, their families, and my staff."
A clinical manager of two medical-surgical units at Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital, Schlitz oversees about 140 employees. However, she's a nurse by training, and she's spent much of her career working in emergency departments. Her experiences there have shaped her empathy in countless ways. In particular, her work with the hospital's organ donation program has given rise to a volunteer effort that has banded together dozens of hospital employees over the last few years.
In 2017, Schlitz attended a one-day learning session hosted by the Gift of Life Donor Program. The interactive event was designed to train and equip providers who were interested in enhancing their hospitals' organ donation systems. It was there that Schlitz first heard of the Home Cook Heroes program. Volunteer groups are invited to cook dinner (and brunch, on the weekends) at the Gift of Life Family House in Philadelphia, which creates a home away from home for transplant patients and their families who travel to Philadelphia for transplant-related care.
Another nurse who attended the learning session with Schlitz said, "We only ever get to see the sad side of this process [after a donor has died]. It would be nice to meet and help some of the people whose lives are being transformed by these transplants." Schlitz agreed. They decided then and there to sign up for dinner duty one night.
From that moment, Schlitz has been hooked.
"It felt like such a great way to help people, and it was kind of a therapeutic thing for our group, too," she says. "Everyone there that night was so appreciative. There was also the added benefit of doing something together that we loved, cooking, which brought us a little closer together."
Schlitz signed up for more dinners and even gave her group a name: The Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital Home Cook Heroes. Since its formation and to the pandemic, the group prepared and served dinner at the Family House about once a month. Anywhere from six to 15 people prepped and cooked on each occasion. Schlitz said eight people contributed in some way to virtually every dinner, though about 80 people have been involved at one point or another.
Schlitz would schedule dinners six months out and share a link among an extensive list of contacts at the hospital for people to sign up for what they wanted to contribute. Over time, the link was also spread among friends and family members. Many would leave their dish with Schlitz on the day of the dinner. Some would contribute money toward ingredients. The volunteers who were slated to do the cooking, left the hospital parking lot together around 3 p.m. and headed for the Family House.
Once inside those walls, the concerns of the outside world faded, Schlitz says. All that mattered was feeding their gathering guests of all ages for whom a home-cooked meal was perhaps their one glimpse of normalcy in their entire day.
"Everyone eats in a large dining room. Sometimes, we'd sit with them while they eat," she says. "As nurses, it's in our nature to talk with people, ask them how they are."
After everyone finished their dinner, Schlitz and the other volunteers would gather in a corner of the dining room to eat theirs. For all the 12-hour shifts they work together, week in and week out, there was rarely time to catch up on each other's lives. But this became that time.
The in-person cooking and dining aspect of the Home Cook Heroes program has been temporarily suspended since the spring due to COVID-19, but the spirit of sharing for families in need goes on. In lieu of their monthly dinners, the Penn Medicine Chester County Hospital Home Cook Heroes have dropped off prepared meals on multiple occasions. One month, everyone chipped in $20, and they had dinner delivered from a nearby Italian restaurant.
If you're interested in volunteering with or contributing to the hospital's group once the kitchen reopens, email Schlitz at Laura.Schlitz@pennmedicine.upenn.edu.