Watching Lucy Bernas cook for fellow cancer patients at the Hope Lodge in Rochester, Minnesota is like watching a dancer. She moves with grace and practiced skill, all the while keeping up a fast-paced conversation. She never refers to a recipe and seldom employs a measuring cup.
“I cook with love and my heart,” she says. “If you cook with your heart it always tastes better.”
The food that she eventually serves up is delicious, and she beams as patients and family members gather. They are all here in Rochester facing the realities of a difficult medical procedure: radiation, chemotherapy, surgery. But Bernas knows that healing requires less invasive interventions as well. A simple meal with new friends feeds the body and the soul.
A Minor Complaint
Like many cancer stories, Bernas’ started with a minor complaint. In summer 2014, what she thought was a persistent sinus infection turned out to be stage three squamous cell carcinoma that had invaded her entire left cheek, the roof of her mouth, and went deep behind the orbit of her left eye. The first surgeries were conducted at a hospital in South Dakota and successfully removed the cancer. Unfortunately, the attempt to reconstruct her face did not go well. The bone and skin transplanted from her leg and femur to her face wouldn’t take.
After a total of five unsuccessful surgeries, she was unrecognizable. She was left with a tracheostomy and feeding tube.
For those who knew Bernas before the surgeries, this outcome seemed particularly cruel. For her whole life to that point, Bernas had been a generous hostess who loved nothing more than to share stories and a meal with friends and neighbors. After the surgeries, she couldn’t speak or swallow or taste food.
Once she felt strong enough to endure another set of surgeries, Bernas turned to the Rochester’s world-renowned Mayo Clinic. In early 2015, Mayo Clinic doctors there explained the series of complicated operations she would need to rebuild her face and mouth. It would take over three years and more than a dozen separate surgeries.
A Place to Heal
Faced with the daunting prospect of spending months away from her home, Bernas learned about the place that would host her during her visits. Located near the Mayo medical center, the Hope Lodge in Rochester has 60 guest rooms for out-of-town cancer patients undergoing treatment. The bottom floor of the facility is created to give patients and their families as comfortable a place as possible. There are eight living rooms areas, but the heart of the facility are the eight kitchens where patients and a family member or caregiver can cook.
Lucy came to us like a ball of fire, she became everybody’s friend and family almost instantaneouslyJamie McGuire, Hope Lodge manager
During her time as a frequent resident at the Hope Lodge, Bernas has spent most of her time in those kitchens. On her initial visit to Mayo for surgery and treatment, she often found she couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night, Hope Lodge staffers and visitors would often find her busily cleaning the kitchens or preparing food to share the next day. Cooking, cleaning, and rearranging the kitchens is how she has managed to handle the pain and the anxiety of her many surgeries.
“Lucy came to us like a ball of fire,” says Hope Lodge manager Jamie McGuire. “She became everybody’s friend and family almost instantaneously. Lucy has been a huge inspiration to people that are staying here.”
While Bernas’ cancer was particularly difficult in terms of eating, most of the patients visiting Mayo and staying at the Hope Lodge were also having various degrees of trouble getting proper nutrition and enjoying food. For those with cancer in the head or neck, radiation can make swallowing food difficult. Chemotherapy often diminishes appetite, triggers nausea and changes the taste of foods.
“A lot of people have a hard time eating throughout their treatment cycle,” says McGuire. “The way Lucy inspires others to people to eat and keep moving and stay healthy is amazing.”
That Bernas could not eat her own meals didn’t matter to her. “When I’m in a lot of pain, if I go to the kitchen and start cooking or prepping vegetables or baking – and the pain goes away,” she says.
Cooking and watching people eat is therapy for me.Lucy Bernas
Bernas’ struggle to get back to eating on her own took months, but she was determined to wean herself off the feeding tube. As the surgeries to reconstruct her face began to make progress, she had to learn how to swallow on her own. That was when she discovered the HORMEL VITAL CUISINE™ brand.
She wasn’t ready to eat the HORMEL VITAL CUISINE™ prepared meals, but she thought maybe she could manage the high-protein shake. She brought a bottle to her dietitian at Mayo to make a deal. The dietitian wasn’t sure she was ready to be off the feeding tube, but Bernas insisted. “I asked for a week to try,” she recalls. “If I lost weight I promised to go back on my feeding tube.”
Each night at the Hope Lodge, Bernas would spend hours sipping the HORMEL VITAL CUISINE™ protein drink through a straw. When she went to her next visit with her dietitian, she had gained weight. “The people who created Vital Cuisine products did an amazing job,” she says. “They’re really good, and it’s affordable to buy. That drink saved my life.”
Bernas will have more trips to the Hope Lodge and more treatments in her future. When she fully recovers, she plans to complete her nursing credentials and work in hospice care. She looks forward to the day when she can partake of her own cooking again. But for now, preparing meals for others is enough.
“Cooking for people makes you feel good,” she says. “It makes you feel like a complete human being. My day is complete when I’m able to help someone else.”