Helping those who help

Former Boulder ER nurse launches program to support restaurants and feed frontline health workers


When the pandemic hit and forced restaurants to shut down (and eventually open, but restrict diners), there were several programs that popped up aimed at supporting these eating establishments while also nourishing frontline workers. Many of these programs came from the restaurateurs, who saw a needed opportunity to benefit both embattled groups.

As the pandemic wore on, though, it became evident that more support was needed. And now, a local telehealth nurse is coming from the health care side to try to support people in both industries, again.

Jill Cohen recently launched Save Restaurants, Feed Nurses — a program that runs a lot like the other “feed the frontlines” endeavors. It started in Boulder, but has since expanded to health care facilities and restaurants across the country.

Cohen, who was an ER nurse at Boulder Community Health (BCH) for 18 years before switching to telehealth, started by raising funds to buy meals at Shine for ER staff at BCH. She says all those stories you hear and read about frontline health workers taking it on the chin during the pandemic are true — in fact, she asked her former colleagues just how bad it was before launching Save Restaurants, Feed Nurses.

“I started calling my former colleagues from various hospitals I worked at, from Wyoming to Montana to California to the East Coast, just kind of doing an informal poll to touch base and say hello to my friends and say, ‘How are you doing, I’ve heard it’s tough,’” Cohen says. “I was kind of verifying if it was as bad as it looks. The unanimous answer, and I realize I have a small sample size, was yes. They all said it is every bit as bad as you think it is. … We’re struggling, our heads are barely above water. We feel beat up, we feel traumatized, we feel exhausted.”

Cohen’s experience in health care provides a different perspective when it comes to these collaborations between restaurants and health facilities. She knows, first-hand, how tough it can be to battle a pandemic head-on; let alone work in an ER or other health facility during normal times.

“On any given day in 2017, it’s difficult in the ER. Patients are sicker. Generally speaking, people come to the ER when everything’s breaking down … whether that’s with mental health or heart and lungs or various other systems. So it’s a hard job,” she says. “When you stack a pandemic on top of that, it’s really hard because hospitals run at very narrow margins. They’re always trying to have enough people there that it’s safe but no more than that. Then you put a pandemic on top of that… a hundred more patients coming in who are really, really sick.”

Cohen says health care professionals are stretched thin — whereas working with one or two patients had been the norm (and still a lot of work), now health practitioners are having to care for three or four extremely sick patients. It takes a mental toll, she says, and a physical one — health care workers get sick too, or take a necessary mental health day, stretching those on duty even thinner.

“It’s tough to see patients dying every day,” she says. “It’s tough not to be able to give the care you would give if you had the resources to do it. It’s tough having people not able to see their families. When all the nurses are stretched that way, then you have less ability to help each other.”

But, Cohen says, a meal can help. Certainly it can’t solve every problem, but she emphasizes just how much a little act of charity can mean to those who are steeped in sickness.

“People might underestimate their power to help,” she says. “‘Oh, it’s a plate of food, what’s the big deal?’ It’s a huge deal. I remember from working there that we’d be having a tough day, and the charge nurse would say, ‘Remember that guy whose life we saved, he brought in some cookies.’ Everyone would be like, ‘OK, I can do this another day.’” 

Cohen says she borrowed a lot of the lessons learned from earlier hospital-restaurant programs, and after reaching out to nurse groups across the country, found almost two dozen people interested in starting branches of the program in their own community. Cohen synthesized all that she’d learned and organized the materials to run the program and distributed them to some early co-participants, and now Save Restaurants, Feed Nurses has operations in multiple states including California, New Mexico, Kansas and Michigan, with more places joining in.

With a vaccine on the horizon, people might think this kind of support isn’t necessary anymore, Cohen suggests — but she says it’s going to be a while before the pandemic officially ceases, and with infection rates sky-high, the time for support is right now.

As she says: “We’re not out of the woods.”

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