For many people, the majority of Christmas Day is spent sitting comfortably around a pine tree, opening presents, catching up with wayward family members and eventually moseying along to a belt-loosening holiday dinner. All in all, Christmas is a time to relax, reflect and enjoy.
Mike Bryan, the 39-year-old executive chef at Palisades restaurant in Magnolia, used to follow that protocol, but for the past two years has found himself in the most unlikely place on a day generally reserved for hanging out in your PJs: the intensive-care unit at Harborview Medical Hospital. Each Christmas since 2002, Bryan has spent a sizable chunk of his holiday at the regional ICU cooking up and serving a holiday feast for patients, their family members, doctors and nurses.
Last month, Bryan was presented with the Harborview Community Service League's outstanding community service award for helping patients and their families forget their troubles in the ICU, if even for a short time. According to Janet Jones, board president of the Community Service League, those troubles can be considerable.
The trauma center at Harborview receives patients with life-threatening injuries and illnesses from Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Many of the people who end up there, either being treated or waiting for a family member to recover, find themselves in a frightening environment, in the middle of a big city with nothing to do except wait out the hours and hope for the best. Any time spent at the hospital could be characterized as "not so great," but compound that with being there on a holiday like Christmas, and you've got the makings of a pretty bad day.
Several years ago, Bryan found himself in the ICU after a family friend suffered an aneurysm and was rushed to Harborview. Looking back, Bryan said he was inspired by the medical staff's respect and caring for his neighbor. "They treated him well," Bryan said.
He was so inspired that he took it upon himself to give something back. Working with the kitchen staff at the restaurant, he organized a staff-appreciation lunch. Serving more than 200 people, Bryan taught the cooks how to prepare a "Palisades-style buffet," complete with mushroom-crusted beef tenderloin and crab-stuffed halibut - a far cry from the cafeteria food most are accustomed to. The lunch was a hit, and shortly afterward, Bryan was contacted by the hospital's volunteer league. They asked him what he thought of doing something similar on Christmas Day. Bryan, who knows what it feels like to sit in a visitors lounge waiting for good news, jumped at the opportunity.
"It was just something to take their minds off what was going on," Bryan said. "Anything to get them to forget that they were in a horrible place on Christmas and one of their family members was on the verge of life or death."
Putting it all together isn't a job for one person, but luckily, Bryan said, people are more than happy to pitch in. On Christmas Eve, a few of his co-workers spend the evening preparing and cooking the food for the next day. Then, on the day itself, he and two or three helpers, including his 6-year-old daughter, go to the hospital and spend several hours serving a four-star meal. The whole spread ends up costing around $700, all of which is paid for out of the Palisades' charity fund.
For Bryan, though, it's not about money or public relations - it's about the smiles he can bring to the faces of people going through a rough time. He recalled a particularly touching moment the first year.
"Two years ago I had a lady come up to me and give me a big hug and say, 'Thank you, I needed this.' That right there sealed it: I'm going to do this as long as I can," he said.
He plans on being there every year, and hopes to continue gathering help for the dinner. He said he'd like to see the event expand into a once-a-month affair, if he can find other area chefs who would like to contribute their talents as well.
To that end, some progress has already been made. The family of a patient in Tacoma, after experiencing one of Bryan's holiday feasts, took it upon themselves to organize the same style of dinner, but on Thanksgiving.
Bryan would like to be involved as often as possible, but his responsibilities as a lead chef at his day job limit the time he can spend at the hospital. But each Christmas he'll be there to help bring a little cheer to a few people.
"Every year it's going to be something I do," he promised.
For those interested in learning how to help out, contact Mike Bryan at 285-1000, or Janet Jones of the Community Service League at 731-4093.