By Josh Jarman
Does your family have an unspoken agreement to avoid certain topics of conversation at the dinner table? For most of us, political disagreements can drive a wedge between family members faster than a carving knife through turkey. So we choose to embrace civility and pass the gravy. But, some of us can remember when disagreements were not always solved so peacefully.
Lisa Cook, a baker at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, can remember when prejudice beliefs determined where you went to school, sat on a bus or were allowed to eat a meal.
Mangos and banjo music
Lisa Cook was born and raised in Miami, Florida. It was there that she learned how to pick, peel and eat wild sugar cane, launch mango seeds with a flick of the wrist and appreciate the sound of her father’s five-string banjo.
“In those days we didn’t worry about a thing,” she said with a grin. “Dad was an aircraft mechanic and mom stayed home to take care of us. My parents had a beautiful marriage. They taught us to treat everyone regardless of skin color with respect, and to always give folks the benefit of the doubt.”
During those days the Cook family household never knew a stranger. “Our yard was always full of kids either huntin’ frogs, chasin’ dragonflies or ridin’ horses,” she said. “And mom, she was always busy cookin’ up a storm for anyone and everyone that could benefit from a hot meal.”
It was not until grade school that Lisa came face-to-face with discrimination. “I remember there were race riots at my brother’s high school in 1968. It was a sad and ugly time and I wanted no part of it.”
Lisa was never afraid of hard work. In fact, during her teenage years she worked as a hotel maid, a cashier at Winn-Dixie and as a junkyard parts salvager. “Bobby was the best part I found in that junkyard,” she quipped. “I’ll never forget how he pulled up in his 1965 Chevelle lookin’ like Wolfman Jack. He asked me on a date right then and there and we have been together ever since.”
In the beginning, the young couple lived on love and motor oil. “Bobby built racecars in our carport and I would detail them,” she said. “I used to love it when he would crank them up, man alive the whole house would shake. It just went right through you, and our customers, most of whom lived in the Bahamas, loved it.”
Before long the grease lighting lovers had two beautiful children and an important decision to make about their future. Lisa longed to live closer to her parents, who had recently moved to the mountains of North Carolina and were starting to experience more health-related issues.
“So we packed everything up and moved to Boone,” she said with a grin. “But nothing could have prepared us for what happened next.”
Exactly one week after moving to the High Country, Bobby had what Dr. Peter Ashline at The Cardiology Center described as a “widowmaker” heart attack. To make matters worse, he was informed after surviving open heart surgery in Charlotte, NC, that he could no longer work.
“At that point, the kids were getting up in age and we needed money,” she said. “I worked several jobs including a night shift position at K-Mart before finding my perfect fit at Watauga Medical Center.”
Lisa was hired as a baker and tray starter at Watauga Medical Center 12 years ago this July. Most mornings she arrives at the hospital around 5:00 a.m. to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee before putting on her apron to bake hundreds of biscuits, some of which are sent to feed the inmates at the Watauga County Detention Center. Much like the operating room, which is located above the kitchen on the second floor of the hospital, the food services team uses every oven, stove, pot, pan and cutting board with surgical precision to feed nearly 500 people three meals a day.
In addition to serving food in the hospital cafeteria, the kitchen team also works tirelessly with the clinical staff on the floors to prepare meal trays that meet each individual patient’s dietary needs, which can and often do change during a patient’s stay.
“I consider delivering meal trays to be a privilege,” she said. “For just a moment, I get to enter life with a patient and their family. In those moments I do my best to greet everyone by name and to encourage them with a laugh or a hug. Meal tray deliveries really hit home for me after my mom died on my birthday two years ago. If you think about it, we all pass by so many different people in life without ever stopping to ask them how things are going. I think we need to get back to that.”
Lisa admits that working in a hospital can take an emotional toll. For strength, she often goes to the hospital’s chapel to write in her journal and to pray.
“I pray for all of us,” she smiled. “I pray for my husband to get better, I pray for my kitchen family, I pray for all of the staff and of course for all of our patients.”
“I am proud to work here because this healthcare system takes care of everyone,” she said. “What if it was the Lord who came to your door? Would you turn Him away? No, I wouldn’t. I would invite Him in and feed Him. Mom was like that. No matter who you were, there was always room for one more at our table.”
Appalachian Regional Healthcare System is currently hiring food service workers. Click to learn more about career opportunities, search for jobs, or contact a recruiter.