Mary O'Connell: Home Healer

Strengthening clinical links: O'Connell has also strengthened her department's links to the weekly Resident Care Plan Meetings since, as a dietitian, she knew there were clinical issues that needed to be addressed. "I established clinical protocols for charting and we pre-printed nutrition assessment forms for admissions and for quarterly reviews for residents," she points out. "Today, I still do some charting along with one full-time and one part-time dietitian. Before I came, the dietitians didn't attend these weekly meetings, they were there in absentia. But I believe an interdisciplinary approach (to resident care) is very important."

Weight loss is one of the quality indicators that is always of concern in a nursing facility and O'Connell finds it's often best resolved by discussing the problem directly with the resident and their family. "I particularly enjoy the meetings when the families are there," she says. "Would serving more plantains, for example, or certain other foods they enjoy, trigger their appetite? Sometimes it's the time of the meal, perhaps we need to have breakfast available at 10 a.m. for a late riser."

Ethnic expansion: Over the years, the ethnic composition of the population at the home has changed and the menu reflected that shift in its transition from kosher-style then to one offering more choices of foods from all over the world. Executive chef Herb Thomas aims to meet the palate preferences with items including Jamaican beef patties, tacos, enchiladas, pork chops and collard greens.

"We try to spice up our menu as much as possible but it was a challenge to get our cooks, who are mostly from Puerto Rico, away from using the seasoned salt with MSG on everything," O'Connell confides. "Now, we're big on garlic, but overall that's healthier than salt. Also, with so many people here from Puerto Rico, Peru, Jamaica, Haiti and Cuba, offering alternate entrees on our buffet service is our best way to cater to their preferences."

Purchasing efficiently has been one of O'Connell's goals from the outset, when she realized that having approximately 30 vendors wasn't the best way to go. By doing a spreadsheet analysis of the dollar amount spent on the top 20 items, the ones the most money was being spent on, she was able to convince administration to switch to a prime vendor.

"It was an arduous task but money talks," she asserts. "We belong to the Greater New York Healthcare Association and through them we linked up with Innovatix, a non-acute care venture with Premier."

Beyond the home: This year, as well as devoting time to her duties as president of the New York City chapter of the American Society for Healthcare Food Service Administrators (ASHFSA), O'Connell is keeping a watchful eye on the completion of the new kitchen, her dream since she first chose a career in foodservice.

Born and raised in Ireland and inspired by an aunt who was an excellent cook and worked in foodservice, O'Connell earned a diploma from the Dublin College of Catering (now renamed the Dublin Institute of Technology). "But here in the States, they told me that if you want to get ahead in hospital foodservice you need to be a dietitian, now we all know that's not true. But I said, 'Fine. I'll do whatever it takes,' so I went back to college, earned a bachelor's degree in home economics from Queens College (in Flushing, NY), then a master's of science in nutrition."

Along the way, O'Connell got married; had two sons, now 10 and 12 years old; and rose rapidly in the Aramark ranks on the clinical nutrition side of business to become a director of clinical services overseeing multiple sites.

Her new kitchen: But she has always yearned to run her own kitchen. "This nursing home has given me the opportunity to be part of operations and be responsible for it, and now there's going to be a new kitchen," she beams. A blast-chiller will gladly be welcomed as it helps the staff meet the challenge of getting food from 140°F to 70°F in two hours.

But tilting skillets, (there was no room for them before) plus a dedicated elevator located directly outside of the kitchen for quick transit to all five floors, will all be duly appreciated.

"I was also persistent in making sure that the floor sloped to the drains in the production area and by the dish machine," O'Connell reports. "And I told them they needed to have filters in place to filter the water before it goes to the equipment, since the mineral deposits have broken valves here in the past. It's something nobody would think about having to point out. It's scary but you have to double-check everything!" And she does.

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