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Becoming a PA

The healing power of ice cream

Bernish, Brian MS

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Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants: January 2019 - Volume 32 - Issue 1 - p 1-2
doi: 10.1097/01.JAA.0000550291.93897.ef
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“Ma. You need to eat something.”

Those were the words coming from a patient's son, who was dealing with his mom's inability to find something appealing to eat as she faced a new diagnosis of lung cancer that was originally thought to be bronchitis or pneumonia. I was on my internal medicine rotation and was listening to my preceptor explore all options of foods to try. The patient didn't have any restrictions. She loved all kinds of food. The son clearly wanted to find an answer. You could hear it in his voice. We all wanted to find the answer. I suddenly had an idea that came from a memory from a difficult time in my life not so long ago.

“What about some ice cream?” I asked.

I have met very few people in my life who do not eat ice cream. For the better part of 40 years, I knew my father as one of those people. The man would eat just about anything you put in front of him; but if it were a sweet, he refused. Later in life, I learned that when my dad was a boy, his parents had restricted sweets to holidays and birthday parties. Moreover, sweets came with a heaping of Catholic guilt for my dad and his brothers.

In his later years, my father's health declined significantly. At one point, while recovering from a major surgery, my dad refused to eat anything; his appetite had completely gone. I recall standing in front of him in a hospital room, puzzled over why he had no desire to eat. Things were serious because dad was refusing cheeseburgers. When he could not stomach the thought of eating one, I knew we were in uncharted territory. Despite several attempts, the best we could do was black coffee. This went on for days. I began to worry that he might require a feeding tube but because he was dead set against one of those and I was his healthcare power of attorney, I didn't want it to come to that.

As I said earlier, I knew very few people who refused ice cream. To me, it is the greatest food ever. I have had to convince myself more times than I care to admit that ice cream is not suitable for breakfast. But ice cream was not on the list of foods suggested to my dad, which is why what happened next is such a mystery to me.

I recall standing next to a nurse who had become quite fond of my father, and we were revisiting the food dilemma. My dad was more lucid than on previous days, so we were hopeful we could get some answers out of him. Frustratingly, nothing piqued his interest. I began to worry more. Was he depressed? Was he on a hunger strike? I never had seen him like this. I was getting frustrated. I was desperate.

“How about some ice cream?”

The question hung in the air followed by silence. Then his eyes brightened. His head lifted. He smiled a little.

“You know what? I think I could try a little ice cream.”

To this day, I am pretty sure the nurse and I teleported to the freezer at the nurse's station. We were high on a possibility. I imagine that the NASA scientists who had to figure out how to rescue the crew of the ailing Apollo 13 space capsule probably felt similarly when a new idea arrived to solve the seemingly unsolvable. As the nurse and I were faced with a freezer full of ice cream, we were giddy with the thrill of potentially solving the puzzle of my dad's anorexia. She looked at me and asked, “What flavor does he like?” I blurted back, “I have no clue. I have never seen my dad eat it! Can we take him a couple and see what he likes?”

We grabbed three flavors. We hurried back to the room. We quickly unwrapped the wooden spoon and peeled the lid off the little ice cream container and set it in front of him. With the mannerisms of a toddler confined to a high chair who is skeptically approaching a new food, my dad tried the ice cream.

“This is really good. Can I have more of this if I finish this? If I want it?”

It was wonderful. We all celebrated. He ate all three containers. The nurse and I high-fived. We may have hugged. The next day, I was told my dad was eating other foods, and he was still eating ice cream. In fact, the majority of what he was eating was ice cream. He loved it. After he left the hospital, it became a regular part of his life. My mother was elated and dumbfounded. After many years of marriage and several attempts, my dad surprised us all and ate ice cream with her. He ate it after almost every dinner. He ate it in the afternoon. I believe he ate it before noon. He shared it with his granddaughters. He scoured the sales papers at grocery stores and drug stores and found all the best deals. He became a connoisseur of ice cream and freely told anyone who would listen about his love for it. In anticipation of his visits to my house, my wife and I would stock up our freezer with multiple flavors so he would have options. It became an activity that brought us joy. It brought him joy.

A year later, my dad was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). It was the beginning of what would become a difficult period for him. He started chemo, he lost a lot of weight, and foods started to taste metallic and unappealing. Thankfully, ice cream was one of the few foods he still wanted (especially with rum raisin oatmeal cookies my mom made for him). He would leave me voicemail messages on my phone.

“Son, it is me. Dad. Blue Bell is two for $5 at Walgreens. Food Lion may have it on sale next week. Love you.”

This would go on for several months. My freezer became full of many cartons of ice cream. I wanted him to have options, and he also was eating less. He died suddenly after fighting MDS for less than a year. One of the last messages I had from him was about ice cream sales.

“Ma. You need to eat something.”

“What about ice cream?” I asked.

“Yeah, do you have some? I could eat some.”

My preceptor and I walked to the nearest freezer. “What flavor does she like?” we asked each other. I hurried back to her room. “Vanilla.” I rushed back. Found a spoon. I carried the ice cream to her. I checked the label to see the brand: Hershey's.

“Thank you, honey!” she said.

“Thanks so much,” said her son.

My dad would have approved.

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