Students talking

HCP Brings Meals, Smiles, Care to Homebound Patients

This summer, the Nurse Practitioner Group’s House Calls Program (HCP) arranged one of its largest volunteering events yet. Nineteen students from Columbia Nursing, Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, and high schools across the metropolis came together on September 4, 2022, the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, to deliver meals to the homebound population. Marie Carmel Garçon, DNP, worked with us to organize the event. With the volunteers’ help and a generous grant from the Columbia Student Service Corp, we were able to bring countless smiles to homebound patients and their families. We are seeking funding for another meal delivery this spring. 

Preparation for the Labor Day event began months beforehand, with the drafting and revision of the grant proposal. After the board members approved the grant, we designed a nutritionally balanced menu that stayed within budget but also, more importantly, encouraged malnourished patients to eat. We considered the average age of the homebound population and their dentition, and it made sense to replace hard, crunchy foods with pureed fruit and vegetable pouches and soft Hawaiian bread. Meals also included a rotisserie chicken, bags of popcorn, a sports cap water bottle, and a goodie bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss picks donated by the dental school. 

Admittedly, there were times when we were tempted to postpone the event or to narrow our project’s scope because we were so short-staffed. The patients themselves gave us the strength to push through. We initially identified them by their names and medical record numbers, but as time went on and the same names kept reappearing on faxes and to-do lists, we developed a sense of closeness and responsibility towards them. 

While we coordinate their medication deliveries, referrals to specialists, and visits from nurse practitioners like Professor Garcon, we had yet to meet most of our patients in person. It was only over the phone, after we described the event to them, that we heard their confusion transform into excitement and we were reminded of our purpose as health care professionals: to provide service to those who most need it. The smiles we heard in their voices invoked the humanists in us, and encouraged us to do everything we could to ensure that holiday meals arrived on patients’ doorsteps.  

Who exactly are the homebound? 

At first thought, one may imagine elderly individuals who have reached a stage in life in which their compromised mobility warrants greater supervision and care. While this demographic does make up much of the homebound population, it is important to remember that some may be young but physically unable leave the bed, for example due to injuries from a motor vehicle accident or the effects of a lifelong neurological disorder. Others may suffer from clinical depression so severe it is nearly impossible for them to climb out of bed to make themselves breakfast. 

Many of us are privileged. We rarely give it a second thought when we go out for a jog in the park, grab a cup of coffee with friends, or attend a cabaret show in a cozy jazz bar. Meanwhile, for lonely patients who can hardly find companions aside from their home aides, even the briefest visit from family members or volunteers who extend love and care to them is a form of therapy in and of itself. 

This truth was made explicit on the day of the Labor Day delivery. 

The morning began with two groups of volunteers splitting up to prepare separate components of the meal. One group assembled foods with longer shelf-lives while the other drove to the nearby Costco to retrieve the fresh rotisserie chickens. By noon, all the volunteers who signed up for the event had arrived at the rendezvous site. Nursing students, dental students, and high school students were divided into groups and assigned a list of patients to visit before gathering for a pre-event huddle. Together, we gave thanks to all who could join us in making this dream a reality and reviewed the list of nutritional tips and oral hygiene instructions that we were to give to every patient. Professor Letty Moss-Salentijn, who has always been a strong advocate for a more interprofessional approach to patient care, inspired this collaborative effort. 

As students spent the afternoon walking door-to-door, handing out meals, providing patients with nutritional advice, and demonstrating proper brushing techniques, they were surprised to be flooded with positive feedback. At the end of the day, with the boxes from Costco emptied and our hearts full, some volunteers reconvened to share the compelling stories they had heard. 

At one apartment lives an elderly Jewish-Catholic woman, the sole survivor of a family living in Germany during World War II; she grimly recalled the 40 family members she had lost. A few blocks away, we met a middle-aged woman with severe clinical depression. Having lost her husband and brother in the past year, she is having difficulty affording groceries in the current inflationary economy. Also in the neighborhood lives a widow who lost her husband to COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic and still experiences sleepless, tearful nights. 

Though we can’t eliminate the emotional pain these patients have been left with, we could lend an ear, provide some company, and surprise them with a special delivery. Nothing was as rewarding as seeing smiling patients hug trays of rotisserie chicken. Truly, nothing was as heartwarming as receiving calls and handwritten messages from patients’ family members who wanted to express their gratitude for bringing joy to their loved one’s mundane Labor Day weekend. 

And, in response to these messages, we at HCP would like to say: "It is our pleasure, and we sincerely hope to bring more smiles and care to your door in the future." 

This article was written by Columbia University College of Dental Medicine students Kathy Hu and Vanessa Nguyen. Volunteers from Columbia Nursing included Yaritza Torres, Bryce Berman, Justin Xu, Melissa Pellizzari, Noelle Aguinaldo, Sydney Brown, and Mary Ellen Morris-Delaney, while Rachel Utomo, Jonathan Chen, Rodolfo Olivares, Soomin Park. and Zacharie Rahhal also volunteered from the dental school. 

Special thanks to Urmi A. Desai, MD, Kellie Bryant, DNP, Sarah Cho, JD, MBA, Cionna I. Roque, Sydney Anne D. Kitzmiller, Alejandra M. Vasquez, David Hu, and Isabel Zhou.