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Our Chaplain in the Cafeteria

Thomas Allen, our chaplain in the cafeteriaIn the wee hours of the morning at The University of Kansas Hospital cafeteria, you wouldn't expect to see compassionate patient care on full display, but that's the perfect time for Thomas Allen to do some of his best work.

Allen, who started as a third-shift cook at the cafeteria in September 2015, already is making a name for himself throughout the organization. And it goes beyond his deft skills at the grill.

One couple, whose young son faced a new cancer diagnosis, went to the cafeteria around midnight to get something to eat. They encountered Allen cooking behind the counter and decided to share some of their difficult and painful story with him. 

"They experienced a level of concern and compassion they didn't expect whatsoever," said Rebecca Moburg, RN, director of Patient and Family Centered Services, who met with the couple afterward.

"They thought they would get an average meal with minimal human contact, but they walked away with some delicious pancakes and a restored faith in what we do at our hospital," Moburg recalled. "They told me this story with tears in their eyes."

Allen, it turns out, is more than a late-night cook. Such uplifting encounters with patients' families and staff "happen every single night," he admitted.

It's easy to see why when you meet him. As associate minister at the Oak Ridge Missionary Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kansas, Allen displays a natural warmth and interest in others.

He calls it his "discernment," an ability to sense others' emotions. "I can tell when someone has something going on inside of them," he said. "They open up to me."

He's using those skills to participate in The University of Kansas Health System's Clinical Pastoral Education program, which will certify his as an on-call chaplain in the hospital.

He's also received an Excellence in Caring Award, created to show that everyone in our health system, not just caregivers, can make a difference in patient care.

Allen has worked in the foodservice business more than 25 years, including as a young cook at a hospital in Michigan, where he's from.

Yet it's his role at our health system, he said, that is the most "impactful" for him since it gives him a daily, direct connection with patients, families and staff who could use a reassuring word or two – and a specially prepared hot meal – at all hours of the night.