Feed the Heart Allows Families to Focus on Caring for Their Children Instead of ‘What’s for Dinner?”

  • September 11, 2019

In 2015, Vicki Haug was a nurse at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. One of her cardiac patients belonged to a family of seven, who was traveling back and forth to Egleston from Augusta as their young daughter waited for a heart transplant in the hospital. Weeks had turned into months, and one evening, the family confided to her that they didn’t have anything for their dad to eat. Vicki’s sister was in treatment for cancer, and she knew well how expensive it was to eat at the hospital for days and weeks on end. Her heart went out to them.

Vicki wrote a proposal for the Cardiac Family Advisory Council requesting that the group provide a snack cart once a day and dinner once a month for cardiac patient families. The Director of Cardiac Services encouraged her to “give it a shot,” and her supervisor, Becky Johnson, helped Vicki acquire a cart and find space at Egleston. With a generous initial donation from a Sibley cardiologist and the enthusiastic participation of cardiac families who were eager to help each other, Feed the Heart was born.

“It costs about $20 a day for one parent to eat here,” Vicki said. “They do get a discount, but it’s still expensive at about $140 per week for one family member. Many of our families are here for months, and the stress and financial pressure can be intense.”

Alison Mueller, MS, Program Coordinator, helps run the heart family support program sponsored by Sibley Heart Center, Kids at Heart, which offers parents, families and caregivers of kids with congenital heart defects a chance to come together and share their experiences. Feed the Heart falls under the Kids at Heart umbrella. Alison focuses on managing the program and getting the word out.

“As our cardiac families saw and experienced the Feed the Heart donations and meals, the program just grew and grew,” Alison said. “We’re proud of how much it’s grown – shocked really. It’s a great way to connect heart families with each other.”

A snack cart stocked with donated nonperishable items and drinks is replenished three times a day for families in the Cardiac Stepdown Unit (CSU) and Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU), which have 28 and 31 beds respectively. A family-style dinner, usually provided by other heart families in honor of their children, local businesses or community organizations, is served weekly on Tuesday nights. Nurses help set up the dinner and get the word out to cardiac families on the floor to come by and grab a plate. The recent addition of a kitchen, donated by two heart families, has allowed Feed the Heart to also provide refrigerated snacks and microwave dinners.

“Parents don’t want to be far from their kids for dinner,” Vicki said. “This way, they can make a plate and take it back to their child’s room or they can stay for a few minutes and chat with other families. It’s something different than the cafeteria food they’ve been eating for months and months.”

Feed the Heart is 100 percent donor supported. The program received a grant in its first year that has sustained it, and donors provide the rest.

The staff at Sibley Heart Center Cardiology has donated their time and resources to Feed the Heart as a direct way to help families who are in the hospital,” Alison said. “Doctors have personally sponsored dinners, and Sibley has initiated pantry drives at their clinics around Georgia. These are the sweetest, most generous gifts we could imagine, and other units have been inspired to offer a program like this as well.”

Since its inception in 2015, the Feed the Heart program has served meals to more than 4,000 people. Contact feedtheheart@choa.org to learn more about Feed the Heart or to schedule a dinner or pantry drop-off. Click here to make an online donation.

For more information about Sibley Heart Center Cardiology and our pediatric cardiology specialists, click here.