When Kings Park resident Richard Pearse thinks back on a lasagna dinner he shared with his wife last year, he gets choked up.
What made the meal memorable wasn't just his company, it was where he ate it — off a hospital cart as he was wrapping up a three-week treatment course for Mantle Cell Lymphoma.
Eating from china plates set on top of the cart, Pearse and his wife, Meg, spent a few quality hours together in what he described as a “private room” in Stony Brook University Hospital's oncology unit.
“It was really sweet,” he said.
“Date nights,” as the nurses on the oncology unit at Stony Brook call them, have been organized for five patients such as Pearse so far. The staff started the practice to help keep a sense of normalcy, love and goodwill alive in patients battling a difficult disease over a long period of time. Oncology patients typically stay at the hospital for a month or more while undergoing treatment, said Maggie Knight, a registered nurse at the hospital. The program provides a patient quality private time with their loved one that they might not otherwise get during their stay.
“We want them to feel good even though they’re in the hospital,” Knight said.
Knight and some of her colleagues in the oncology department organize and pay for the meals themselves.
“It’s very hard to pinpoint when we’re going to do it, because most of the time our patients have no immune system and we don’t want to order out [for food] if they don’t,” she said. Because of this, the dinners usually take place before a patient’s transplant or before they go home after treatment.
Knight said they try to make the meal special.
“It’s a surprise for the patient, not the spouse,” she said, adding that they ask the spouses to dress nicely and to let them know what the patient’s favorite foods are.
“So whether it’s pizza or ribs or whatever, we kind of surprise them.”
They also use decorations to help set the mood. “We cover our transplant cart with a nice tablecloth and we have some nice china and we roll it into their room — and they’re always pretty shocked,” Knight said.
Pearse said those details didn’t go unnoticed.
“I don’t think they realize how special it really was,” he said.
Pearse said after three weeks of treatment, during which he underwent a stem cell transplant and six days of chemotherapy, a dinner date with his wife was “not something I was expecting."
“That day was actually the day I was being sent home,” he said. “It was nice to be sent home like that.”
Knight said the sentiment is reciprocated more than their patients might think.
“They’re so special to us, they don’t even realize it,” she said. “They become like our friends and family.”