Who's for fish fingers with honey and sprouts six times a day Chef Shirley's story reveals it's not just doctors and nurses who help save lives on child cancer wards
22:52 GMT, 17 September 2012
Unsung heroine: Shirley has become incredibly close to many of the children she cooks for
Last week, the Mail launched its sixth
Inspirational Women of the Year Awards, in association with Sanctuary
Spa and the charity Wellbeing of Women. We’ll be asking you to nominate
the special women who deserve to be recognised. Here, Jo Waters talks to
one of our truly inspiring nominees…
Like room service in all the ritziest hotels, chef Shirley Moore will rustle up whatever her guests fancy at any time of day. But her guests are not staying at a hotel. They are children in the Royal Marsden Hospital’s cancer wards.
Many are desperately ill — undergoing aggressive chemotherapy or recovering from life-saving bone marrow transplants.
Their treatment can last up to three years and their hospital stays can run to months at a time.
Chemotherapy can make them lose their appetite or give them unusual cravings — and tempting their taste buds to eat again is vital for their survival.
That’s why Shirley, 48, will cook to order anything a child feels like: fish finger sandwiches with honey, home-made burgers and her signature knickerbocker glories.
‘One little lad had cravings for Brussels sprouts and that’s what he got six times a day — even though they were out of season,’ says Shirley, who lives with her partner Rick, 52, a removals man, in Sutton, Surrey, and her daughter Leanne, 18. She also has three grown-up sons Peter, 26, Rob, 24, and Richard, 23.
‘Another boy fancied curries, but didn’t know which sort — so I made six types for him to try. We have a menu and regular meal times, but if a child has a special request I’ll always make it.
‘Most of our menu is healthy — I work closely with dieticians — but sometimes the rules go out the window to get children eating again.’
Shirley has been the paediatric catering supervisor on the children’s wards for seven years and is based at the Oak Centre for Children and Young People at the Royal Marsden in Sutton, Surrey. She works a six-day week, takes only one week’s holiday a year, and often goes shopping after work with her own money to make sure she has the children’s favourite foods.
She has become incredibly close to many of the children she cooks for and their families — one couple even named their new baby after her.
Shirley’s first contact with the Marsden came 20 years ago when her friend’s daughter was treated for leukaemia there — she died aged seven. ‘I used to come and see her. She had wonderful care.
‘It was heartbreaking for us all to lose her. It really affected me.
‘I noticed how good the food was even then. Years later, a friend told me about a vacancy in the kitchens and I got the job, and I’ve loved it.’
Typically, Shirley feels her nomination for the Inspirational Women awards is ‘embarrassing, because I don’t do any more than anyone else here’.
Yet the patients’ parents would disagree. As they go through the nightmare of watching helplessly as their child battles cancer, they say Shirley keeps them going with her cheerfulness. Equally, they say, she is sensitive to their moods and knows the days when jokes are not appropriate — leaving a tray of food quietly without any fuss.
Nurses tell of how Shirley will stay behind for a game of pool in the evenings with the teenagers. She also helps the younger children cook — decorating biscuits, making pizzas. She never stops.
‘I once wore a pedometer all day and found I’d walked six miles,’ says Shirley.
There’s only one thing she won’t do and that’s order a takeaway. ‘I want to know what ingredients go into my dishes. I make my own pizzas, and chicken nuggets with the best chicken I can find.’
Shirley helps the children decorate biscuits. The only thing she won't do is order a takeaway
Francesca Waite, 47, a single mother from Ashford, Kent, who works as a retail manager, has been staying at the Marsden for the past nine months while her three-year-old son Blue Tobin recovers from a bone marrow transplant.
Blue was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia — a cancer of the white blood cells — in March 2011. This form of leukaemia accounts for one in four of childhood cancer diagnoses — 85 per cent of which are cured. Blue is prone to infections and is being treated for pneumonia.
‘At one stage he was sent home to die,’ says Francesca. ‘It was devastating — but we refused to give up on him and found out about another chemotherapy drug normally used on adults, which was being used on children in the U.S.
‘The Marsden agreed to treat him with the drug and, despite having only a 15 per cent chance of success, he is cancer-free.
‘He loves Shirley’s cooking. She calls him “Prince Tobin” because whatever he wants he gets. Once, when he wouldn’t eat, she bought a car-shaped cutter to make his sandwiches and he ate them.’
Fergus Davidson, a 39-year-old web designer from Haywards Heath, West Sussex, says his 15-year-old son Digby, also recovering from a bone marrow transplant, says food is about the only thing he has control over.
‘Everything else that happens in hospital is decided for you — the chemotherapy, the drugs — so it’s nice that Digby can choose what he wants to eat. It might seem like a small thing, but it matters a lot.’
Shirley is highly valued by the medical team at the Marsden.
‘Shirley’s down-to-earth approach, enabling children to have food they enjoy at times that fit with their hospital schedule, has been instrumental in the recovery of many,’ says Dr Julia Chisholm, head of the Oak Centre.
Parents have even offered to build granny flats in their gardens for Shirley to come and stay.
Fleur Cory, 38, and her husband Stefan, 39, are so grateful to Shirley for her care of their son Luke, who died of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in December 2009 at the age of six, that they have named their 18-month-old daughter Amelia Shirley in her honour.
‘Shirley is the unsung heroine of the Marsden and without her it would not be such a special place,’ says Fleur, from Worthing, West Sussex.
‘She did great things for Luke. I have lovely memories of them having water fights in his isolation unit. She was one of his best mates.’
Working in a cancer unit can be tough — though survival rates for childhood leukaemia rates have improved, not every child makes it.
‘I do have to go outside sometimes and cry,’ says Shirley. ‘But I manage to come back in and be composed. I drink lots of coffee, that helps.
‘Most of the children who die go home or to a hospice for their last days — but if they do die here it’s very hard.
‘I’ve had to prepare a meal for a child knowing it will be their last. One girl craved a fruit smoothie. She enjoyed it so much, but the next day she died. I do go to some of the funerals — it’s always hard.’
Shirley always takes her holiday at Christmas, as she finds this is a difficult time. ‘It’s when they should be at home with their families, but they have no choice.’
She admits seeing what children with cancer go through has made her unsympathetic to people outside the hospital. ‘If someone starts telling me they have a headache or the flu, I say: “So what” ’
Understandably, when Shirley gets home from work she doesn’t want to cook. ‘I’ll usually have a sandwich,’ she says.
A much-deserved moment of peace for a woman who shows life’s real heroes are often the ‘backstage’ people we rarely see.