Chef Robert Grotha was born and raised in the St. Louis area. He attended culinary school on the East Coast, but decided to return to the Midwest and accepted the job as executive chef at St. Louis Children’s Hospital two years ago. Chef Robert says he’s experienced too many memorable patient interactions to count. His relationship with Tyler, a two year old brain tumor patient, caught the hearts of viewers of the second episode of The Frontline for Hope, a six part documentary series filmed at the hospital. In this installment of From the Bedside, Chef Robert explains how he became Tyler’s “personal chef,” and what he learned from this very special patient.
I was brought up fine dining. That was all I expected to do. I put in the long hours and hard days and working holidays and brunches and Easter and Mother’s Day. But it just got to the point that I needed to do something that was more conducive to a work-life balance. So I started at South campus and transitioned over here. And this job is nothing like what I expected. It’s the mentality and the culture of what this is. Until you’re here, and you’re experiencing it, and you’re seeing these little miracles on a daily basis, you have no clue.
I’ve developed a special bond with a few patients over the years, and Tyler is definitely one of them. Ironically enough, “One hurdle at a time,” was Tyler’s family’s mantra. And Tyler and I first got acquainted because my department was part of a hurdle. He has a very particular diet, that has to be very regulated. Everything has to be weighed, and you have to be pretty educated on the food that he is getting to make sure he’s getting the appropriate nourishment.
He received food that was not appropriate to his needs, and I promised his mom that I’d do everything in my ability to make sure it didn’t happen again. Unfortunately, it did happen again, and that prevented him from being as responsive as he could to therapy. I took that personally because I had made her a promise that we were going to do everything in our power to make sure that he got all the proper nourishment to get him out of here, to get him healthy, to get him back and living a normal childhood as quickly as we possibly could. So I went up and I had a conversation with Amy. And I just remember knocking on the door, and as soon as she opened the door, she was in tears, and was very, very visibly upset.
It was very powerful to me, just how much emotion she was expressing toward the food her child was getting. Because that was something that being in a hospital, she couldn’t control. As a mother, I can only imagine not having the ability to say, “I know confidently you’re going to have exactly what you need to make sure that all of your appointments, all of your therapies are as smooth as possible.”
So I took it upon myself to make sure that he did get everything that he needed. Over the course of a couple of months, I coordinated my entire day around going to see Tyler for lunch and dinner. At first it was very established what the expectation was, what Tyler wanted for lunch, what Tyler wanted for dinner. His mom would tell me start to finish what she expected on that tray and what time she wanted it up there. About midway through me preparing meals for Tyler, though, she’d call down and say, “You know what, you’ve got 9 grams of protein to work with. Tyler’s feeling a little adventurous today, so if you want to put a little culinary insight into whatever you’ll be preparing for a meal for him today – go for it.”
He established a few favorites, so she’d call down and say he had a really good day in therapy, and he wants his favorite pizza, or he’s having a tough morning, so if you can get him something at lunch that’s really going to excite him so that he can go into the rest of these other events that he has to accomplish to the best of his ability. It’s very powerful having that opportunity.
It’s also humbling, because I just think of it as doing my job. But talking to Amy and seeing all those emotions evoked by the entire family – to them it really makes a difference. And that is the true definition of why we’re here as St. Louis Children’s Hospital employees. We’re all here doing something that has that much of an impact on the lives of others around us. The biggest thing we can do on a daily basis is not forget that.
Every person who works here can tell you a story of a special patient, of how much better off of a person they are or how somebody’s impacted them or given them the strength to get through a tough time. That’s what keeps people coming back here. That’s what keeps people working here for 55 years.
With Tyler, I look at this little boy, and I am just overwhelmed at his strength. You could tell he was having difficult days some days, but his drive was relentless. This was at two. I can’t imagine what kind of wildfire he’s going to be at 21. One hurdle at a time was their mantra, but he’d jump them three or four at a time sometimes. He was just constantly making sure that he was striving to get better. And there is no doubt in my mind that he is going to grow up to be a healthy young man, and overcome any obstacle that is presented to him. I think we can all use that as a perfect example of as long as we’ve got the strength, as long as we’ve got the perseverance, we can overcome every hurdle presented to us – one hurdle at a time.
The Frontline for hope airs Saturdays at 6:30 pm on KSDK Newschannel 5. You can also access the episodes online. Episode 2: “One Hurdle at a Time” features Tyler’s story.