Zoe Barber, a NHS surgical registrar, has returned from the West Coast after spending two months studying the impact of Project AngelFood, which delivers nutritious meals to the critically ill in Los Angeles.
The trip was made possible after Zoe received a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travelling fellowship. On the back of the opportunity to discover more about a project without a comparison in Britain, she has taken a 12 month sabbatical from surgical training based at Great Western Hospital to investigate how it can be implemented here.
Zoe, from Royal Wootton Bassett, explained: “Project AngelFood is a non-profit organisation based in Los Angeles which began in 1989, in response to the HIV/AIDS explosion. It started with a small group of volunteers making meals to deliver to people too ill to leave their homes or to purchase ingredients to cook their own meals.
“Now there are 38 permanent members of staff providing 10,000 frozen meals every week to the terminally ill in Los Angeles County. They prepare meals tailored to particular medical requirements, such as renal failure or diabetes in a customised 8,000 square foot kitchen.
“I applied for the fellowship because, while I am able to make a difference to a small number of people on a daily basis in the operating theatre, I wanted the opportunity to make a difference in the longer term. Some patients go home from hospital with limited support. The basic tasks such as shopping and cooking can be really difficult after a major operation.
“The staff and volunteers at Project AngelFood were so positive about the help they provide to their 2,000 clients and they couldn’t have been more helpful with the mass of questions I had. I was able to visit some of the clients with one of the delivery drivers. For many, their weekly delivery was their only contact with another human being.”
Even though Project AngelFood is a response to very difficult circumstances, Zoe found the can-do American outlook shone through and she was impressed by the commitment to volunteering.
“The LA ‘yes we can’ attitude is so different to the usual UK sarcasm and cynicism. I was worried that I’d find the permanent optimism irritating or fake but I found it really inspiring. Everyone I met smiled and chatted; when I told them about my charity plans, they congratulated me on the idea and offered me their business cards in case I needed any help or anywhere to stay in LA – the generosity and kindness of complete strangers was truly humbling and, perhaps, the biggest lesson I’ve brought home with me.
“The US health and social care system is great for two groups of people – those wealthy enough to pay for private insurance, and the poor who qualify for Medicare. The huge group in the middle of ‘normal’ people who don’t earn enough to pay for insurance but earn too much to qualify for State care are under huge pressure because of the cost of health or social care. It made me realise how lucky we are to have, and how proud we should be, of the NHS. It certainly has its limitations but it is such a wonderful institution in being free to all at the point of access. We are so privileged to have it – we should protect and cherish it.
“On the other side of things, Americans are brilliant at volunteering – it is part of normal life. Businesses donate their employees for a day or longer a month to volunteer, schoolchildren are expected to volunteer to gain the required credits to graduate (and colleges look very favourably on volunteering). For a country with an outwardly materialistic reputation, its enthusiasm about volunteering was really heartening.
“There is definitely a need for a similar project in the UK, and seeing the impact of Project AngelFood in America, it has made me even more determined to set up something similar here and that’s my task over the next few months.”