Project Angel Heart’s meals lift patients’ bodies, souls

Project Angel Heart’s meals lift patients’ bodies, souls

The Denver Post
By Penny Parker

Reading a menu that says roast pork with provencal herbs, tomato sauce, sauteed spaghetti squash, broccoli and cauliflower, you’d think you were about to dine in one of the metro area’s finer dining establishments.

Welcome to the commercial kitchen belonging to Project Angel Heart, a hive of classically trained chefs and volunteers who prepare five meals per week delivered to 800 clients with various medical maladies.

The no-cost service, started in 1991 with a clientele consisting mostly of HIV and AIDS patients, has grown to serving a client base that is, in large part, cancer patients.

“The No. 1 disease we serve is cancer, and the most common type is breast cancer,” said Erin Pulling, Angel Heart’s executive director. “Twenty-three percent of our clients have cancer. People don’t know we are serving people with cancer and other life-threatening diseases.”

Of all meals prepared, 60 percent are modified for chemotherapy patients, diabetics and people with end-stage renal disease — all requiring special diets.

Modified meals specialist Logan Lafferty supervises that part of the program.

“People with a low-fat and low-salt diet have to have their meals modified, but we keep as close to the original version as possible,” Lafferty said.

For Shirleen Druse, a 62-year-old diabetic and end-stage renal disease patient, the aftereffects of dialysis plus diet restrictions that call for foods with low potassium, low phosphorous and low calcium are more than she can handle.

“When I come home from dialysis, I’m wiped out and usually hungry,” Druse said. “With Project Angel Heart, I come home and fix a meal, which means 4 minutes in the microwave with veggies and a main dish — something I can eat. My diet is a mess. If I didn’t have Angel Heart, I would be eating things that were not good for me, and I would be at risk for a heart attack and/or a stroke.”

Clients with conditions that restrict their ability to swallow — such as throat cancer — receive a regular meal that’s pureed.

A chef prepares a moussaka casserole with eggplant and beef. (John Prieto, The Denver Post)

restrict their ability to swallow — such as throat cancer — receive a regular meal that’s pureed.Three-year volunteer Barb Mc Kay’s nickname is “Cuisinart master.” On this day, she purees the pork entree separately from the vegetables. Why does she donate her time?

“I like to feed people who need it,” said McKay, a trained personal chef. “I want to do something for people who need help.”

Executive chef Jon Emanuel said the kitchen can modify foods to meet culinary needs such as vegetarian and gluten-free diets.

“A vegetarian version might be moussaka with eggplant and potato with a bechamel sauce,” he said. “Instead of being super rigid, we can accommodate clients’ flavors and ethnic preferences.”

The meals are made during the week, frozen and then delivered on Saturdays. The organization runs on the help of roughly 3,000 volunteers.

“The value our volunteers bring in time and mileage is roughly a half million dollars,” Pulling said. “Some volunteers have been with us over 15 years.”