Dr. Minna Woo
Nutrition Managers Vesna Blazinovic, (L), and Laura Bernstein helped ensure every inpatient received their meal amid Monday's blizzard by working with Nutrition Services staff to push carts of meals through tunnels connecting Toronto General, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Toronto Rehab. (Photo: UHN)

At 6 a.m. Monday, as a massive snowstorm brought Toronto to a standstill, UHN Nutrition Manager Randy Hesp's phone started to light up with text messages from staff.

Many were delayed on transit routes, or simply unable to get out of their homes or driveways due to the storm.

One of the nutrition aides on his team at Hillcrest Reactivation Centre said she was safe, but stuck on a bus that got into an accident.

"She was hoping another bus was going to come, but nothing came," says Randy, whose team falls under the Facilities Management – Planning, Redevelopment & Operations (FM-PRO) Department. "When I tried finding someone else to work, they were all in the same boat.

"So, I walked over and filled in for everyone."

Randy, who normally works out of Toronto Rehab, University Centre, but lives near Hillcrest, pulled on his snow gear and trudged about 10 blocks through knee-deep snow. He arrived around 7:15 a.m. – just in time to prep for breakfast.

Fortunately, the morning meal was delivered the night before, so Randy, taking on the role of nutrition aide/porter, got the meals assembled and delivered to all 53 inpatients.

"And then the real challenges started," Randy recalls, adding that inpatient meals are made and assembled downtown at University Centre and Toronto General Hospital, then delivered via truck to all UHN sites.

With the roads near the Davenport Road and Bathurst Street site yet to be plowed, the delivery truck got stuck en route.

"He tried and he got stuck three times within a block of Hillcrest," says Randy.

With the lunch hour approaching, Randy gathered up the food on-site and made an impromptu meal: two kinds of sandwiches – roast beef and tuna – Lipton's Cup-a-Soup, coffee, tea, milk, juice and cookies.

"Even the Program Manager at Hillcrest came out and helped make sandwiches, so we had a little assembly line going," says Randy, adding that lunch was only about 20 minutes late.

Once lunch was served, Randy helped shovel the truck driver out of the snow and, with the help of Facilities Management, shovelled the Hillcrest parking lot, so the truck could park and unload the rest of the day's meals.

Randy Hesp
UHN Nutrition Manager Randy Hesp, who normally works out of Toronto Rehab, University Centre, was on the frontline at the Hillcrest Reactivation Centre during Monday's blizzard, making sandwiches for all 53 inpatients and shovelling the driveway so a delivery truck could get in. (Photo: UHN)

Meanwhile downtown, Nutrition Services at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre (PM), Toronto General (TGH) and Toronto Western Hospital were experiencing staffing shortages and issues with food delivery as well because inpatient meals are also delivered via truck to PM and TWH.

With the PM loading dock snowed in and the delivery truck stuck in the snow, Nutrition Managers Laura Bernstein and Vesna Blazinovic had to think on their feet.

They gathered the limited staff they had at PM and TGH – including two Masters of Public Health students on their first day of placement – collected the food carts at TGH and pushed them on foot through the Tri-Hospital Tunnel to PM.

After a few trips back and forth through the tunnel, the Facilities Management team was able to help shovel the truck out of the snow, so the rest of the day's meals could be delivered.

"It was really an all hands on deck kind of day," says Laura, adding that many staff stayed late and worked a double shift – including one team member who skipped her birthday dinner and another who commuted for seven hours to ensure she'd make it in to help.

"We just had an end goal: we need to feed our patients and we'll do whatever we need to do to make it happen," says Laura. "Everyone really did their best to make sure we could operate – it just demonstrated the dedication of our staff."

Joanne Bridle, Senior Director, Environmental Services, Transportation & Nutrition, couldn't be more proud of her team's response on a hectic and unpredictable day.

"With the snowstorm and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we have a number of staff off, so everyone is hands-on and helping out," says Joanne. "My staff, supervisors and managers are all superstars."

For Randy, it's just part of the job and putting the needs of patients first.

"I just sprang into action and did frontline work all day long – as many others in our department did – to make sure that every person had something to eat at all three meals," he says.

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