This Hospital Life

Bye-bye birdie: requiem for a turkey
Dec. 2, 2015

Thanksgiving is nothing if not traditional, but we saw a break with the past at University of Colorado Health this year. For University of Colorado Hospital (UCHealth Metro Denver by its system moniker), the change meant that the longtime practice of distributing turkeys to employees, volunteers, faculty, and residents went into the deep freeze, presumably for good.

By now you know the new organizational approach to saying thank you: giving employees a choice of “holiday appreciation gifts,” including a messenger bag with a UCHealth logo (slight color variations may apply, based on inventory) or $15 gift card options, including one to King Soopers for those seeking a turkey for the Thanksgiving table. Employees could also make a charity donation; at UCH it will go to nearby Park Lane Elementary School.

The organization noted that the change came after an announcement early in the year and with input from each region’s Employee Advisory Group. The primary rationale was one that is now familiar. As a message on the Employee Engagement web page put it: “Historically, each region did a separate employee gift that was unique to that hospital. UCHealth leadership wants to offer options that are meaningful to employees, celebrates our employees consistently and allows for individual choice.”

In other words, in an era of system-building, distributing thousands of gobblers at just one hospital of many in the name of tradition is an idea that just wasn’t going to fly anymore. That’s understandable, as is the fact that those turkey handouts were labor intensive and expensive. If the organization continues to offer employees a thank-you – which it is – and simultaneously saves even a few thousand dollars that can be put toward patient care, count me in.

Thousands of frozen turkeys made a surprising impact on corporate culture each year at UCH.

More fancifully, it would also be nice to think that this change spared the lives of several thousand turkeys, although I have no idea what they would do with their extra time. When I feel a little low, I consider the lives of mass-produced poultry, who spend their lives crowded amidst their brethren birds, all of them unknowingly awaiting the same fate. Thanksgiving, of course, hastens the process.

To paraphrase the great bluesman Jimmie Vaughan’s lament, for turkeys the holiday is two wings down and heaven just called another great gobbler back home.

Lullaby to birdland

All of that aside, I must say that a part of me will miss the turkey handouts at UCH. Allow me to offer a brief remembrance, which I’ll call Requiem for a Turkey.

I knew nothing of the turkey tradition when I started at the hospital on Sept. 24, 2007. My first impression in hearing about it was surprise at the contrast of a sophisticated academic medical center that followed a decidedly old-school tradition. The practice of employers giving Thanksgiving turkeys to employees dates back at least to the years immediately following the end of the Civil War in the United States and earlier than that in England. For example, in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843), a chastened Scrooge makes partial amends for his mistreatment of Bob Cratchit by giving him a turkey.

I liked the idea that my new employer fit that tradition inside a gleaming, state-of-the-art medical facility outfitted with the latest medical technology and nodded toward the past while maintaining a gaze fixed firmly on the future. But I didn’t understand the significance of the turkey handout until I experienced it.

At quitting time on a Thanksgiving week evening that first year, I headed across the Leprino Bridge to the Garden View Café, where the turkeys were being distributed. As I walked, I saw streams of fellow employees walking toward me, bagged turkeys in hand. At the entrance to the Garden View – a much smaller place in this pre-AIP 2 time – I ran into a woman who had sat at the same table with me during our three-day orientation. She worked in the Clinical Lab, as I recall.

We chatted as we walked up to tables attended by smiling staff to pick up cards to collect our turkeys. The cafeteria was bright, warm, and filled with people in good spirits. And it was impossible not to notice that those handing out the turkeys, along with their thanks, were people I recognized as senior leaders of the hospital. I’d been an employee all of two months and I remember thinking, for one of the very few times in my working career, that I was working in a place where I felt I belonged to an actual community – a whole rather than a collection of disparate pieces. I have a fleeting memory of an expression on the face of my fellow employee from the Clinical Lab that said the same thing.

Warmth in the cold

bagging turkeys
Members of the facility team bagged turkeys by the thousands during last year’s frigid distribution.

In the years that followed, I donated my turkey, but always went down to the cafeteria – which eventually changed to the Courtyard – to take photos of the distribution for the Insider. I’d have gone anyway; it was always a pleasure to see the lines, the leaders greeting and thanking people, the staff from Facilities doing the yeoman work to get the birds unloaded, bagged, and moving forward for the friendly distribution.

Last year, the work was done in bitter cold, but the job went on. And there was other good work that accompanied giving employees their turkeys. Teams also took hundreds of donated turkeys to shelters for people badly in need of a hot meal. It all gave meaning to the term “good works.”

As I said at the outset, none of this is meant to dispute the reasons for the change or to plead the case for the turkeys. Shakespeare told us that the past is prologue, and if that is the case, leaders will find new and creative ways to maintain and strengthen their ties with employees.

Hospital leaders greet employees during what turned out to be the final turkey handout in 2014.

Still, there is something to be gained, I believe, by also preserving a link, if only in spirit, to the traditions of the past. Consider the words of the novelist Pascal Mercier, who wrote, “We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.”

It’s odd to think that we might learn something from frozen birds. But while we’ll never see them around here again, if we listen closely and remember well, we’ll once again hear their call.

Post-script on the Havarti Heist

I received more than a dozen emails and many personal comments about last issue’s column on the theft of Havarti cheese I’d stowed in the breakroom refrigerator. Two people – one of them anonymously – even gave me replacement Havarti. Not at all necessary, but many thanks, nonetheless.

The list of items people told me they had lost to thieves ranged from food to clothes, but easily the most surprising – and disturbing – was an insulin pen. I was so taken aback when I heard that one that I found the person who let me know, just to make sure I’d gotten it right. I had.

To the person who pulled that heist off, I can only echo the words of a college roommate who used the following phrase to express special contempt for an action: That’s cold.

About the author

Tyler Smith has been a health care writer, with a focus on hospitals, since 1996. He served as a writer and editor for the Marketing and Communications team at University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth from 2007 to 2017. More recently, he has reported for and contributed stories to the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Bioscience Association.