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Heart patient says Clements University Hospital chef ‘makes my soul smile’

By Valerie Garcia

Brittany Clayborne is involved in an intense battle within her room in William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital. Her room is dark and the curtains are drawn – the only light is the glow of her television. She’s playing “Call of Duty,” an Army warfare game in real time against other video gamers through her PlayStation’s internet. She’s a warrior on “Team Mommies.”

Ms. Clayborne recently checked back into William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital, after a taking a short leave to see her son graduate pre-school and to be by her sister’s side as she gave birth. Her previous stay had lasted four months. Now, she’s back in the hospital indefinitely.

Ms. Clayborne is waiting for a heart.

Chef Chris Hensel and Brittany Clayborne
Executive Chef Chris Hensel and patient Brittany Clayborne, who sports a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of her "HeartUNfailure" website she created to raise awareness of organ donation.

After giving birth to her son Micah, she developed a weakness of the heart called peripartum cardiomyopathy. While many new mothers recover, Ms. Clayborne’s conditioned deteriorated to the point where she needs a heart transplant. It’s uncertain when she’ll receive her transplant: It could be tomorrow; it could be in five months.

However, if it weren’t for the many wires and machines surrounding her, she would appear to be a healthy and vibrant 31-year-old — buzzing with energy, a quick wit, and an infectious smile. 

Nine floors below her, Executive Chef Chris Hensel is managing the Clements University Hospital’s kitchen, which is responsible for serving three meals a day to the hospital’s approximately 500 patients, creating a variety of high-quality meals for the hundreds of daily visitors to their popular cafeteria, and fulfilling ongoing catering orders. This all happens under the guidance of University Hospitals Director of Nutritional Services Marty White, who works with Chef Hensel and a support team that includes General Manager Greg Engle, Clinical Manager Amy Marshall, Patient Services Manager Sara Effiong, Sous Chef Basanta “BK” Shrestha and many more chefs and cooks.

The team is dedicated to providing the patients in Clements University Hospital a fine-dining quality menu that can accommodate 104 categories of diets. To the short-term guest — and for employees who dine there regularly — it’s a daily delight. But for Ms. Clayborne, a New Orleans native who loves food and Starbucks coffee, the many months of these meals began to feel redundant. She craved shrimp and a White Chocolate Mocha. One day, she vented to Dr. Jennifer Thibodeau, Medical Director of the Heart Failure Disease Management Program.

Dr. Thibodeau said she’d call the kitchen chef to see if he could create a special meal. But before Dr. Thibodeau connected with him, Ms. Clayborne decided to try to contact him herself. She called the kitchen call center and asked for the chef. She was shocked when he answered.

“How can I help you?” Chef Hensel asked.

“Well, I hear you might have some shrimp down there,” Ms. Clayborne said with a playful drawl.

“Maybe … for the right person,” Chef Hensel said with a grin.

After planning Ms. Clayborne’s customized shrimp dinner, she says she was stunned by what he said next — he would also create her a special 4-ounce decaffeinated White Chocolate Mocha, pending doctor’s approval, of course.

“He’s my new best friend. He makes my days shorter and my laughs longer. I wake up happier. He makes me forget for a moment that I’m in the hospital. Real good food feeds your soul. But it’s more than that. He makes my soul smile.”

Brittany Clayborne

“I was already so moved by the phone conversation, but I didn’t expect what would happen next,” Ms. Clayborne said. “He brought my shrimp dinner and coffee up to me. And it was phenomenal. That might actually top the moment when they tell me I have a heart!”

Now Chef Hensel ensures that Ms. Clayborne receives her special mocha three times a week. He makes frequent trips to the ninth floor to deliver a special meal to Ms. Clayborne and to talk about their shared passion for the art of cooking.

Chef Hensel and his team often create special meals for long-term patients or patients with low appetites. When he hears that a patient is not eating, he’ll visit them and ask, “What was your favorite meal when you were at home?”

Recently, another patient told him chicken and dumplings. Soon, Chef Hensel returned with a heart-healthy version, created with input from his kitchen team.

“I’m not a normal chef,” Chef Hensel said. “I truly enjoy visiting and working with patients and then bringing their wishes back to Sara and Amy to figure out how we can make it happen. It’s a team effort. No challenge is too great when it comes to making a patient happy.”

Dr. Thibodeau says she first remembers meeting Chef Hensel at the former St. Paul University Hospital. One of her reoccurring patients was craving white chocolate macadamia nut cookies, and Chef Hensel delivered a batch that she would allow with their diet. Now, whenever the patient is readmitted, Dr. Thibodeau calls the chef with a request for the special cookies.

“Everyone wants to feel like an individual and to feel special,” Dr. Thibodeau said. “With Brittany, he could’ve just sent her the coffee on a tray. But he took the time to come up and visit her. I think that is very special.”

Besides playing epic video games, Ms. Clayborne devotes her days to working on “HeartUNfailure.com,” a nonprofit website she created to raise awareness of organ donation. She’s also taking online courses for a master’s degree in Occupational Psychology, and she loves Face Timing with her son and husband. Now, thanks to her new friendship, she says she looks forward to food again.

To learn more about Ms. Clayborne’s personal story, read a post from December 2015 on UTSW’s “One Heart” blog.